The breadth and ambition of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials delights and dazzles. From String Theory to the Book of Genesis, the trilogy might be children’s fiction but this is grown-up stuff that does not shy away from asking the big questions. Do you have a soul? What does it look like? Are the forces of good and evil real? What is the glue that binds the universe together? These questions and more unfold in this psychedelically, kaleidoscopically, mind-blowingly epic Senior Production.
What if, Pullman speculates, your soul is like an animal spirt which lives outside of you? This ‘daemon’ (which as all classicists will undoubtedly know is Ancient Greek for soul) might be a snow leopard, a goose, a monkey, a butterfly… The options are as endless as the multiverses.
In the original National Theatre production the Daemons were magically rendered as puppets. In a flash of genius, Director of Drama Dr Helen Brown has replaced the puppets with a troupe of balletic dancers and the results are spellbinding. The godmother of contemporary dance Martha Graham wrote, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul” and in collaboration with the troupe of prodigiously bendy, skilful and expressive dancers, professional choreographer Sîan Archer brings the characters’ souls entrancingly to life.
Awash with colour, the stunning set design achieves the unimaginable, transporting us from world to parallel world with the rapidity of sliding down, well, a slide! Along with the two playground swings perched at the apex of the set, these become poignant reminders of the childhood that our protagonist 12-year-old Lyra is leaving behind in this coming-of-age story.
Whether you are a fan of the books or new to the story you will love the visual spectacle, the myriad levels and labyrinthine tangle of platforms as twisty as the spiral staircase at the heart of the stage. Interspersed with mullioned windows, the design takes us to an Oxford college where, as the Bard had it, we lay our scene.
The overall effect is as if an Oxford college library and a children’s playground occupy the same space. As the play draws to its climax, the action returns to Oxford where a collection of College Dons squabble over the future of mankind with just the right air of officialdom and pedantry. The set has you wondering whether the essential childishness of most adults might just be Pullman’s point.
The adults are petty, factional, bullying and obstreperous, whilst the kids are valiant, truthful, righteous and good. At the end of Act 1 Lyra discovers she can step through tears in the space-time continuum into any number of other Oxfords, each one perhaps only marginally different from her own but offering the hope of a better life. This division is characteristic of the classic voyage and discovery narrative familiar from other beloved children’s stories, where the child hero vexed, disgusted or simply scared by the flawed ‘adult’ world escapes into a seemingly ‘better’ world.
As in all good children’s literature, Lyra soon discovers that adults are not to be trusted. The two central adult characters in the story certainly hold fast to this. As the adventurer-scientist Lord Asriel, Freddy Williams’ husky tones suggest the world-weary angst of a man whose obsessive quest for justice have cost him dear. The word ‘metallic’ perhaps best describes Nina Churchill’s portrayal of femme fatale Mrs Coulter. Glistening in gold sequins she oozes across the stage in a floor-length gown and mile-long train, her silver-tongued charm concealing her steely determination to kidnap and control her own daughter. Her discovery, too little and too late, that maternal love can be as strong a force, if not stronger, than romantic passion is one of the tragic layers in the complex story.
This adaptation makes even clearer the powerful parallels between Lyra’s parents and her own blossoming romance with Will Parry, who at the start of Act 2 becomes her closest ally. The success of the production hangs upon Abi Watkinson’s Lyra and Toby Pattinson’s Will. A precocious tearaway tomboy at the start of the play, Watkinson ages convincingly across the two-hour stretch with only a handful of minutes off stage. Both she and Pattinson reveal the heart-breaking sacrifice the two lovers must make, the ultimate and most painful severing of being irreparably parted from loved ones.
Through the dizzying pace and neon colour palette, moments of great poignancy emerge. The sprawling storyline sees Lyra time and time again forced to decide who her friends are, to defend why she should stand by them and define how they help to make her who she is. When Lyra descends into the hellish world of the dead with her Daemon Pantalaimon, played by the willowy Charlie Tonks who flutters impishly through her transmogrifications, she is forced to choose between her soul-mate Will and Pantalaimon, both her best friend and a portion of her soul. In order to do the right thing for the greater good, she must sacrifice her dearest friend and a part of herself.
Watching the performance unfold it struck me that growing up together, Salopians make, break, re-shape and finally forge friendships for life. With this spectacular production the cast and crew also invite us to think about the meaning behind the spectacle of life and, like Lyra, to take our stand, whatever it might be.
Performances in the Ashton Theatre, Shrewsbury School at 7.30pm, Wednesday 22nd - Saturday 25th November. Tickets are FREE and may be reserved in advance via www.ticketsource.co.uk/shrewsburyschool.
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