Philip Pullman’s fantasy saga is transported effortlessly to the stage in this adaptation by Laura Cull. The action takes place across a plethora of different worlds, transforming in an instant from the stark light of the ‘Magisterium’ to a murky underworld with translucent curtains draped across a smoke-infused stage. The flexibility of the set is, in fact, one of the greatest achievements of the production, offering a platform for the imaginative conception of the trilogy’s mysterious universe. Triangular white sheets slice the area on the stage, providing various pockets and podiums where more intimate scenes can take place. The lighting has a similar effect; in the opening montage, the flash of a spotlight momentarily illuminates sections of the stage as the audience is taken on a crash-course of the first novel. Though a little confusing to follow, the scene has a kind of dislocating effect on the audience that adds to the fantastical nature of the play.
The scene introduces us to Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry, played by Becky Lenihan and Gregory Coates respectively, and we embark with them on their journey to battle against the self-interest and power-hunger of the forces they encounter. The two actors are paired perfectly, each managing to capture a youthful sense of adventure and defiance. The audience witnesses their gradual maturity and growing affection for one another, though a kiss between the two towards the end of the play feels somewhat over-sensual for a girl and boy only just reaching their teenage years. Their relationship is heart-warming nonetheless, and we cannot help but root for them as they face new opposition from the authoritarian church and their ambitious parents. Speaking of which, the performances of Robyn Murphy and Tom Fawcett cannot go unmentioned. Murphy is sultry and seductive in her role as Lyra’s manipulative mother, Mrs Coulter, whilst Fawcett’s booming voice is eclipsing as Lord Asriel, and astoundingly more thunderous still when he shifts to playing Iorek Byrnison.
The fact that the same actor can slip so easily between man and supernatural creature is indicative of the smoothness with which realism and fantasy are blended in this production. The puppeteers on the stage that mimic the actions of the dæmons they control are not only unobtrusive, they actually enhance the tensions on the stage. Their facial expressions reveal the subtle emotions that pass between characters in conversation. Each puppeteer fully inhabits the character of their dæmon, twitching and crawling in an animalistic manner. So convincing are these dæmons that they have the power to invoke fear in the audience, with James Soulsby’s menacing monkey cutting a threatening figure on the stage.
But for all its concern with the fantastical aspects of the play, the production doesn’t lose sight of its political message. In an early scene the head of the Magisterium ceremoniously presents Brother Jasper with a medallion, declaring that all crimes committed whilst wearing it will be absolved. It is an ominous reminder of how easily authority can lead to the abuse of power. Religion and wealth become a means of justifying the unjustifiable, and the innocence of the two children in the face such deception serves as a beacon of hope and purity. This is a classic tale of good pitted against evil that will let you reminisce in the days of dystopian literature you read as a child.
This is not to say that the production is without fault; several scenes feel a little clumsy and forced, with a father-son recognition situation coming across more amusing than endearing (‘Wait…let me look at you in the light…you’re my son!’). But it’s an ambitious project, and it’s been executed with innovation and enthusiasm. It allows you to drift into an alien world, or worlds, and doesn’t release you until the final blackout.