JOYCE MCMILLAN on HIS DARK MATERIALS PART ONE at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.5.09
3 stars ***
IT’S A STRANGE EXPERIENCE, watching this stage version of Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy in the week when the Irish judiciary published its report into the abuse of children in Christian institutions. Pullman’s epic story is famously anti-clerical, and its ambition is breathtaking; if Milton, in Paradise Lost, set out to “justify the ways of God to man”, then Pullman aims to reverse our traditional ideas of godly authority, and to arraign religious institutions for their cruel attempts to destroy the rich sensual joy of life.
So Pullman’s little heroine, Lyra Belacqua, is a brave and brilliant innocent abroad in a strange post-Victorian world of church power; a young adventurer born to challenge existing authority across a myriad of multiverses, with the help of strange armies of witches, daemons, and warrior bears. And the challenge of presenting her epic adventures on stage, gallantly undertaken by Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse in this two-part touring version, in Edinburgh until Sunday, is enough to stretch even the boldest of theatrical imaginations.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile’s production of Nicholas Wright’s 2003 version seems, at least in the first half, not quite equal to the complexity of Pullman’s vision. It certainly retains enough of the story, in spirit and detail, to satisfy enthusiasts. But as a piece of theatre, His Dark Materials becomes absorbed in a love-affair with puppet-makers Blind Summit – who create weird and impressive bears and daemons – at the expense of the narrative lucidity of its overall design, which is all darkness, bittiness and confusion. And despite an exquisite and touching central performance from Amy McAllister, and dedicated support from a 20-strong cast, the overall impression is of a show that has got into a tussle with the might of Pullman’s narrative, and been reduced to a slightly confused and lacklustre submission.