His Dark Materials ****

His Dark Materials is a brave and epic tale.  Based on a trilogy of books by Philip Pullman, it is a creative mixture of fantasy and science fiction, and it has the courage to question the very notion of religious faith.  It is, however, not surprising that it has run foul of many religious circles, even though it isn’t necessarily an atheistic story.

The action follows Lyra, a young orphan who is a ward of a college in Oxford located in a parallel universe.  Sinister forces are at work from within the Church, an ominous organisation that seems more focused on controlling free thought than preaching religious doctrine and is intent on censoring any mention of a mythical substance known as ‘dust’.  Lyra gets caught up in an adventure that crosses universes as she finds herself to be the vital key in a growing civil war.

The production takes place over two parts, neither of which work without the other.  Nicholas Wright has taken some liberties and has cut some key characters and plot points, but he is extremely successful in capturing the essence and spirit of Pullman’s creation.  Many fans of the book will no doubt debate the reasons behind many of these choices, but the story presented mostly works for audiences ignorant of Pullman’s work, which is the key to any successful adaptation, and is faithful enough to the books to please fans.

The fact that Wright has managed to include as much of the plot as he has is down to clever plotting and brave editorial choices.  I liked the fact that he didn’t allow the plot to completely take over, for there are still some excellent character moments that don’t necessarily further the story but allow certain characters to mature and blossom.  But it isn’t perfect, as some of the omissions affect clarity and much of the dialogue exists solely to further the plot and feels clunky at times.

Bringing the story to theatrical life is no small feat, and for that the directors Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile should be commended. They have managed to create a believable theatrical environment that takes itself seriously, even when it takes comedic and playful turns.  The design concept is rather simple, relying mostly on some interesting lighting effects.  The rest of the design, save one aspect, is actually a bit disappointing, but the production is so well directed that the lack of spectacle is hardly noticeable.

But if there is a design point that most will be speaking about, it must be the puppets used in creating the bears and the important daemons, the living souls that take the form of animals and have their own personality.  They are all wonderful creations and their use supplies many of the production’s greatest moments.

Performance-wise, the production is fairly solid.  Amy McAllister makes for a very good Lyra, and Nick Parry’s Will is equally good.  One never questioned that they weren’t really the age of their characters, and they were consistently sympathetic.  The ensemble work was quite strong, with people playing multiple roles with ease.  Some characters were realised better than others, and some non-British accents were a bit questionable.

But the best performance of the entire production is by Gerard Carey, who play’s Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon.  I have seen plenty of performances where an actor’s work with a puppet was commendable, but I cannot think of another performance where actor and puppet complimented each other so well.  Carey’s facial and vocal expressions, matched with his creative manipulation of the puppet, made for an extremely moving performance that rose above everything else.

If there is one flaw to the production, it is in the use of the Festival Theatre.  Though the production is quite large, it still felt overstretched to accompany the theatre’s playing space.  Some dialogue and essential character reactions were lost.  A smaller performance space would have suited the story and served the emotional complexity much better.

It may be long-winded and demand a bit more time investment than most theatre productions, and it may have a script that has sacrificed some clarity and key moments to fit into the needed six-hour running time, but His Dark Materials is still well worth seeing.  It has some great performances and is a fair adaptation of a much loved and admired modern classic.

Playing at the Festival in Edinburgh until May 24.

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