His Dark Materials–thoughts after part one

So, when is a review not a review?  When it only makes simple comments on the first of a two-part production.

It seems that most of the press of this tour of His Dark Material’s have only looked at part one, but as the play is clearly meant to be seen in conjuncture with the second part, that seems rather unfair.  This isn’t like a Greek trilogy or one of Shakespeare’s histories where each part stands well on its own; this is meant to be one production that is digested in two sittings.

So instead, I present you with some of my views and thoughts of the play so far, like someone speaking at the bar during the interval (as I guess, in a way, I’m in the middle of a 21-hour interval).

The strongest aspect is the adaptation.  I am amazed with Nicholas Wright’s treatment of Philip Pullman’s rather difficult and complex trilogy.  His work with Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (whatever you want to call the first book) was actually much better than the film.  The film famously played down the religious aspects.  I have both read the book and seen the film, and I had forgotten how prevalent the religious commentary was until seeing the play.  As much as I’d liked the film, I now understand the heavy backlash many of the book’s fans have had towards the film.  However, I’m not nearly as impressed with his work on The Subtle Knife.  I will have much more to say on this in the official review, especially as a large chunk of Knife has yet to be performed.

I’m enjoying most of the performances.  Using adults to play children is the correct choice, especially as the two main characters take a rather difficult and mature journey, one that the majority of younger players couldn’t handle.  And the ensemble work is rather seamless.  There are some rather horrible accents, however.

The use of puppets for the daemons is also quite successful.  The puppets are all clever, not people in rubber suits but artistic extensions of the actors that play them.  Gerard Carey’s Pantalaimon is rather remarkable in that you are constantly watching both him as an actor and his work with his puppet.  It might prove to be the best performance of the entire production.

But for me there is one great weakness: the Festival is just too big for this production.  True, it has a large ensemble and set pieces, and all of this would be difficult to fit in a smaller-sized playing area.  However, much of the emotion of the story is getting lost in the sometimes great distance between players.  It feels as if the actors have to run onstage just to make their cues.  The story is huge in scope but emotionally it is actually quite intimate, and much of that intimacy is being lost.

So, in closing, I have rather enjoyed part one of His Dark Materials and look forward to part two.  Those who know the books know that the story gets bigger in the second half, so perhaps the distance may be addressed and plot may become denser.  We shall soon see.

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