SEARCH:  
Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 17th January 2004

His Dark Materials / The Permanent Way

The Spectator - 17th January 2004

His Dark Materials, Nicholas Wright's adaptation of Philip Pullman's three-volume work of the same name, is such a monumental achievement it feels almost churlish to criticise it. You've probably heard some of the numbers by now. 30 actors, 24 stage crew, eight electricians, eight musicians, five stage managers...nothing on this scale has ever been attempted at the National before. Commercially, it appears to have paid off, too. The 1,100-capacity Olivier auditorium is completely sold out for the duration of its run, although 30 seats and 64 standing places are available each day from 10am.

This theatrical event--the word "play" seems inadequate--is divided into two, three-hour parts, though neither of them works as a stand-alone piece of theatre. If you're going to bother with His Dark Materials you have to bite the bullet and sit through all six hours of it. Not that I minded. On the contrary, I felt it would have worked better if it had been divided into three parts, with each segment corresponding to a single volume of Pullman's trilogy. Its main shortcoming is that it feels a little rushed, as if the cast is racing to finish the story within the allotted time. But more on that later.

The most impressive thing about His Dark Materials is the way in which Nicholas Hytner, the director, has used every conceivable weapon in the theatrical arsenal to bring Pullman's universe to life.

First, there's the use he makes of the Olivier's famous drum-revolve, an ingenious, Heath Robinson contraption that allows for a seamless succession of set changes. (There are 110 transitions in total.) For some of the time, you can actually hear the stagehands banging away behind the scenes, but you forgive this intrusion as soon as each new set appears.

Then there are the puppets. These represent Pullman's daemons, the physical manifestations of the souls of his characters that follow them around like faithful pets. They're the brainchildren of Michael Curry, the man behind The Lion King, and the National has had to establish a whole new department to produce his designs. There must be over 100 of these creatures in total, many of them operated by Ninja-like puppeteers, and they bring a magical quality to the entire production. They're the theatrical equivalent of CGI special effects.

The performances, too, are uniformly good, with Timothy Dalton, Anna Maxwell Martin, Dominic Cooper, John Carlisle, Danny Sapini, Patrick Godfrey and Tim McMullan all doing outstanding work.

It would be going too far to say that this extraordinary team is let down by Nicholas Wright's adaptation since, on the whole, it's a very sold piece of work. (It took him 18 months to complete.) It can't have been easy reducing 1,300 pages to six hours of stage time. He's been criticised for leaving out several of Pullman's key characters, but that's not the problem. The issue, to my mind, is that he's left far too much in. In both parts, I was completely gripped for the first two hours, but after that the effort required to follow the myriad plot developments began to take its toll. There's simply too much going on to fully take in. In the end, I was left feeling overwhelmed by the sheer, unremitting pace of it. Imagine if Peter Jackson had been forced to compress The Lord of the Rings into two parts instead of three and you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about.

Pullman's trilogy has been condemned as blasphemous by the Association of Christian Teachers and, to be sure, his fanatical hatred of the church rivals that of James Joyce. However, it's hard to object to an attack on Christianity that is so steeped in the British republican tradition. His Dark Materials has been described as a reply to CS Lewis's Nania Chronicles, but it's more like a counter-blast to Milton's Paradise Lost. If at times it's over-didactic, it's the didacticism of a 17th Century pamphleteer rather than a modern-day socialist. It has a mythic, timeless quality that, by and large, is successfully captured by this spellbinding production.

The Permanent Way, David Hare's new play, is a cracking return to form for the leftwing firebrand after the disappointments of The Breath of Life and the recent revival of The Secret Rapture. Ostensibly about our crumbling rail network, The Permanent Way is actually a blistering attack on Blair's Britain, holding the Government to account for failing to use its mandate to rejuvenate our public services. It consists almost entirely of edited transcripts of interviews Hare has conducted with various people caught up in the half-dozen-or-so recent train disasters and, as with other plays written in this style, you get a terrifically vivid sense of them. Throughout the play's one hour and forty minute running time, the stage is teaming with these angry, intelligent people, all clamouring to be heard. I daresay The Permanent Way will sell out as quickly as His Dark Materials so if you're interested in seeing one of Britain's best playwrights in top form you'd be well-advised to book now.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share





Twitter Awful story. A revealing glimpse of what Corbyn’s “caring” supporters are really like link  (14 minutes ago)

BEST OF THE WEB

The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski - the-american-interest.com
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony - jerusalemletters.com
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller - quillette.com
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand - newyorker.com
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge - economist.com
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell - city-journal.org
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander - prospectmagazine.co.uk
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell - quillette.com
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff - newsweek.com
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings - dominiccummings.wordpress.com
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew - politico.com
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus - claremont.org
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman - theguardian.com
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer - conservativehome.com
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan - nationalreview.com
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs - newstatesman.com
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker - edge.org
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood - theatlantic.com
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray - quadrant.org.au
Beware the soft Stalinists of the campus by David Aaronovitch - thetimes.co.uk
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter - conservativeteachers.com
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win - youtu.be
Corbyn's first seven days - theguardian.com
Corbin's cabinet chaos by Darren McCaffrey - news.sky.com
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons - gq-magazine.co.uk
Inside Westminster's free school - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn's politics are a fantasy – just like Alice in Wonderland by Tony Blair - theguardian.com
Robert Conquest obit - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that - news.stv.tv
In defence of free schools by Toby Young - standpointmag.co.uk
 

BLOGROLL

Andrew Lilico
Andrew Neil
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Normblog
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Slate
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone
 

COLUMNISTS

AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
 
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.com


  • IMdb Page on the film