Friday, 22 May 2009

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre ordain His Dark Materials to create a bit of a mess

One of the biggest things on the internet in 2003 was a video of kid who dressed up, played with a toy lightsabre and, by common consent, made a bit of a fool of himself. Now, in fairness to the Birmingham Rep, this is a somewhat harsh comparison, but not completely so. Nearly five years ago I saw the National Theatre production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and, while it had its flaws, it was, and remains, the most technically impressive thing I have ever witnessed in the theatre (for the avoidance of any confusion, I use technically in the stage technician sense). Lighting, sound, costume and puppetry were constantly jaw-dropping; the Olivier theatre's famous cylindrical revolve was used so many times it is a wonder they didn't wear it out. I can't think it can have been a cheap.

This, of course, presented the Rep with their biggest challenge: to take something so epic and make it into a successful touring production. For me, it comes off looking a little too like the Star Wars kid and, having seen the original, no substitute for the real thing. The lack of money is everywhere: virtually none of the characters have a daemon, the same table and benches are endlessly reused (upended as boats or poorly impersonating laboratory equipment) in a manner unfortunately reminiscent of a school drama class. Where there is talk of the Amber Spyglass, we have to use our imagination rather than see the swirls of dust that the National created; there are wobbly and often inadequate walls. I could go on.

Does this matter? To me, yes. You see, the adaptation itself is extremely problematic. You're taking three fairly long books and shredding them into six hours of theatre and, in a lot of places, there's no way to do that that isn't extremely clunky (or, if there is, Nicholas Wright doesn't find it - in many places I disagree with his choices). Much of the drive, beauty and subtlety of The Northern Lights, my favourite of the books, is lost. Lee Scoresby simply vanishes, removing the best scene of the second book (though given John Hodgkinson's dire attempt at a Texan accent, this is no great loss; Josie Daxter manages much better as his daemon Hester). When you have visually stunning things going on all the time, you are more forgiving of such flaws.

Some things are carried off reasonably well - the armoured bears are almost identical to the Michael Curry's for the National Theatre (something designers Nick Barnes and Mark Down neglect to mention in their three page interview in the programme). The end, where the adaptation is least curtailed, still manages to be fairly moving. A number of the cast turn in solid performances, especially Amy McAllister as Lyra, Nick Barber as Will, Geoffrey Lumb as Iorek Byrnison and Christopher Ettridge as Lord Boreal

Elsewhere, far from helping, the production seems intent on shooting itself in the foot with a lot of silly decisions. Where the National's puppeteers were masked and all in black, allowing the puppets to come to life and disbelief to be suspended, here faces were visible and clothes coloured and they got in the way as a result. The lighting and sound cues when Will cut a window to another world were either repeatedly messed up or, bafflingly, deliberately misaligned with each other and with the action. The more severe flaws seem down to some poor direction on the part of Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile. Everyone seems to have been instructed to be as over the top as possible: Charlotte Asprey as Mrs Coulter is a particularly glaring example (though Timothy Kightley runs her pretty closely as the Master and in various other roles). Most critical is the decision to play the Gallivespian's solely for laughs, much as the Lord of the Rings films chose to trash the character of Gimli. It's not helped by the fact the 'puppets' are simply inanimate wooden dolls. Much the same is true of the angels - the fact that they are not elegant puppets makes the death of Baruch, who is supposed to blow away in the wind to nothing, oddly unmoving.

The Festival Theatre was pretty poorly sold (an hour before hand, I was able to pick up a front row dress circle seat for part one). This may be down to odd timing: it's currently exam season in Edinburgh's schools and a production that might be expected to count on a school audience really ought to think of these sorts of things when picking tour dates. Then again, I don't think they missed terribly much.

Still, it was at least better than the film, which I wasn't even able to get to the end of (that was also let down by an inept director - in this case one Chris Weitz who was under the mistaken impression he could write a better screenplay than Tom Stoppard).

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