“I think he’s planning to use whale noises,” Steve tells me. Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials formed an army to defeat the Catholic Church on a barren planet, but the sound design for his story is being worked out by on of the projection designer’s colleages, Dan Hoole, in a cluttered room round the back of a Birmingham theatre. He has a lot of work to do, though not all of it as exotic as working out how to represent cliff-ghasts: the list of sound effects covers everything from spectres in Cittagazze to traffic on the Oxford ring road. But considering that the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production takes in everywhere from Oxford physics labs in two worlds to the Arctic and Geneva and adapts an iconic book that, together with the Harry Potter books, defined the identity of its generation and redefined children’s literature, it’s not surprising: where to start?
The answer, production manager Milorad Zakula told me, was a series of meetings between him, the director and designer. Working from AutoCAD and a tight budget, they drew up a spare, simple set: steel towers down the side of the set supporting drapes and a bridge suspended from the theatres’ machinery; everything fits into two lorries. In his office (there was a bag of paper snow on the floor, going off to Korea for a tour of The Snowman), he showed me a plan on his computer, sprouting in three dimensions from a flat floorplan of a theatre, looking a little like a blueprint which just grew some legs. They worked out the staging of every scene with a model of the set: on the same computer is a series of photos of each scene, showing how the lighting changes and tables and chairs are brought on and off or a curtain lowered. Late on, the Oxford theatre was changed to the cramped Oxford Playhouse, requiring an emergency redesign: in another file on his computer is the cut-down version Philip Pullman will see when he comes to watch the Oxford run in Trinity. Budget was a major issue, Zakula told me: puppets cost more than expected, the production had to ask for more money from the theatre, and plans for a carpet of LEDs under the actor’s feet had to be scrapped.
The production is currently at an early stage: casting directors are looking for Wills and Lyras in the various cities the run goes through, and the theatre press officer, Victoria Price, took me through the various rooms of the theatre, showing me the costume store, make-up department (with a head of Mr. Tumnus left lying around from a past production), the welding shop, a rehearsal room, and the sound design room. She looked into one room to check nobody was using it, let me in, and on the floor of a bare white-painted room, double-glazed windows looking down onto a warehouse and some trees, the were the heads and spines of two armoured bears, completely finished and waiting for use. I’m going to be seeing it when it comes to Oxford, and I’m sure many other students will too. And if you see Philip Pullman in the seat beside you, ask him from me, just why did he erase Lincoln from the list of colleges in his alternate Oxford?