The Epic Task of Staging Pullman
Posted on by Merlyn

The National Theatre also sent us an article from today's Telegraph, about the His Dark Materials stage play. “Daemons, polar bears in armour, space-travelling children – bringing Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials to the stage was never going to be easy. Robert Butler, who has had exclusive backstage access to rehearsals, reveals how the National Theatre will make the magic work.” It provides some excellent quotes from the actors, actresses, and crew involved. Read More.
Update: You may also click here for the version on Telegraph's site.

The epic task of staging Pullman

Daemons, polar bears in armour, space-travelling children – bringing Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials to the stage was never going to be easy. Robert Butler, who has had exclusive backstage access to rehearsals, reveals how the National Theatre will make the magic work Three years ago, the novelist Philip Pullman was on an “almost never-ending” book tour of Scotland when his agent rang and told him the National Theatre wanted to buy the rights to His Dark Materials. Pullman immediately had two reactions. “I was absolutely thrilled. Of course. Delighted. Feeling simultaneously relieved that it wasn't me that was having to make it into a play. It was someone else.”

Youthful energy: Anna Maxwell Martin plays Lyra, with Dominic Cooper as Will As millions of readers over the past three years have discovered, His Dark Materials is a 1,300-page epic in which the central characters, Lyra and Will, move between parallel universes, journey to the Land of the Dead, take part in a new war in heaven, and witness the death of God. This huge adventure introduces a dazzling array of creatures from daemons to cliffghasts, armoured bears, spectres, gyptians, harpies and pocket-sized Gallivespians. The audiotape of the entire trilogy runs for 35 hours. Had the National set itself an impossible task? “I don't think anything is impossible in the theatre,” Pullman says. “But it was going to be terribly difficult. It's much easier probably to make a novel into a film. “The cinema can easily show a polar bear wearing armour, who can stand up and talk and manipulate machinery. And they can show witches flying through the air and balloons sailing through the Arctic skies. Very, very easily. To do those things in the theatre, it has to become metaphorical, not literal.”

Next month, the stage version of His Dark Materials, directed by Nicholas Hytner, will open at the National.

Each of the two plays runs for three hours, including an interval. So far, a cast that includes Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel, Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter and Niamh Cusack as Serafina Pekkala has rehearsed Play One for three weeks and Play Two for three weeks, and the cast is now back on Play One.

If you walked into the rehearsal room, you would see a row of bears' heads hanging from a clothes rack, a pair of cliffghasts towering in a corner, daemons crouching on tables, and a snow leopard, dogs and wolves crowded into a corner. All these animals are puppets.

The all-important props from the story – the alethiometer that can answer questions, the subtle knife that can cut between worlds, and the amber spyglass that can follow the movement of dust particles – lie on the stage manager's table.

Just beyond the rehearsal room, scene-painters are working on the exterior walls of Jordan College, loosely based on Exeter College, Oxford, where Pullman was an undergraduate. In the prop-making department next door, Terri Anderson is building the horrific machine that separates children from their daemons, painting the handle of the controls a melodramatic bright red.

On the first day of rehearsal, Hytner told the company that he had never before directed two plays at the same time. “It's going to have to be run like a military campaign.” The rehearsal schedule, posted by the entrance, announces calls for “daemon work”, “witches' torture” and “bear fight”. Elsewhere, actors are having wig and costume fittings and sessions with the voice coach. The stage manager, Courtney Bryant, says: “It's the biggest show the National has done in two decades.”

When he was appointed director of the National, Hytner knew he wanted to do an epic play that would appeal to young people. He didn't want to stage another piece of Edwardian nostalgia. After all, as he says about his production of The Wind in the Willows, “I'd already done that.”

He feels that movies are far more sophisticated in the way they appeal to younger audiences. In the theatre, younger audiences are often presented with plays that appeal just as much to their grandparents or great-grandparents.

Hytner wanted to do something that was new and big and would draw on the full resources of the National. His literary manager, Jack Bradley, recommended His Dark Materials. Hytner was halfway through the second volume when he asked Bradley to get the stage rights. “If you hesitate,” Hytner said, “you don't do it. It felt crazy, it felt unstageable, but it felt we have to, we have to try.”

He knew Nicholas Wright, who wrote the award-winning Vincent in Brixton, was a fan of the books, and he asked him to adapt them. Together they spent 18 months rethinking the trilogy as a piece of theatre. Wright began as faithfully as possible, transcribing scenes from the books into scenes for a play.

Gradually, through a series of workshops in which a group of actors rehearsed the scenes that had been written, the plays developed their own identities. Storylines were nudged around, new scenes created, and new emphasis given to some elements. In one example, the pivotal role that a main character takes in the trilogy has been deftly reassigned to another character.

There have been rewrites all through the first six weeks of rehearsals. The one thing Wright could not change was the order of the scenes. They had to be fixed before rehearsals so that designer Giles Cadle could get the sets made.

Designing the transitions between the scenes has been as big a job for Cadle as designing the scenes themselves. Traditionally, on the first day of rehearsals, the director shows the cast the model of the set and explains what happens in each scene. Hytner could only show a few of the 100 scenes. “It's going to take longer for me to show this to you,” he told the whole company, “than it would for you to watch it.” Rehearsals have been full of discussions to ensure that the several quests remain at the forefront of the audience's mind. It's a process that Timothy Dalton enjoys. “I've always thought the only point of being an actor is to tell stories.”

This is Dalton's first time at the National and the former James Bond's first stage appearance for 14 years. “Spending the past 20 years in movies, people are always writing and rewriting as you go along. It's something that I'm terribly used to.”

Patricia Hodge plays Mrs Coulter, a glamorous and dangerous figure, who is capable of terrible deeds. “We can't achieve precisely what is in people's heads when they read the book. We can't achieve technically what they can achieve on film. What we can do is make these characters come to life.” With a vast narrative and dozens of characters, Hodge compares the experience to appearing in a musical. “You have to be a miniaturist. You have to bring a portrait to life in a small amount of time.”

Another challenge is that actors in their twenties will be playing characters who are aged 12. Dominic Cooper, who plays Will, says: “We're not being made to play an age. Doing child acting is completely the wrong way to go.”

It's the things that the characters do that reveal their age. “We would never in a million years do what they do. They jump through a window they've just made in the air, through to another universe. They're fearless.”

For Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Lyra, her aim is to be as faithful as possible to the books. She had read the books three years ago and loved them.

“We're not 12. We're not kids. All we can get is the energy of a child. Thinking in the way a child thinks rather than the way an adult thinks. Being immediate. Instinctive. Just saying what you feel.”

The biggest challenge of all appears in the opening sentence: “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall” In the parallel universe in which the first volume, Northern Lights, begins, every person has a visible daemon, an animal that embodies the soul, subconscious or inner feelings of the character. That opening sentence would make most directors look for other material.

It was the first question that anyone asked Hytner: how are you going to do the daemons? Once Hytner had decided to use puppets, he made extensive investigations, and discovered that for serious puppetry “all roads led to Michael Curry”. It was Curry who did the puppets for The Lion King. He runs a large workshop in Portland, Oregon. Most of the daemons had arrived from America in time for the first day. There was nothing literal about them.

They were of particular interest to Samuel Barnett, who plays Pantalaimon, Lyra's daemon. He will be working with a range of puppets – from pine marten to mouse to wildcat – as his character keeps changing shape. “I've never done anything like this before,” says Barnett, “I've never seen anything like this done before.”

Pullman says: “I am fundamentally a storyteller. I'm more interested in the events that I'm talking about than in the fine prose in which I recount them.” He loves the idea that people can take a story he has written and tell it in a completely different way.

“It struck me right at the beginning of rehearsals,” says Dalton, “that here you are looking at a bit of bent wire and a bit of curtain material, and you invest it with personality, you feel for it, because it has a story.”

'His Dark Materials' is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), from Dec 4 to March 20. 'The Art of Darkness: Staging the Philip Pullman Trilogy' by Robert Butler (NT Publications/Oberon Books) is published in January.

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One Response to The Epic Task of Staging Pullman

  1. Laurie Martin-Cohn says:

    Where does one write to get the stage rights to His Dark Materials?