A battle raged over The Maltings Theatre last week as the war continued between not only Church and science, but between the divine right of the book and the heresy of a play adaptation.
The Maltings Youth Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials had a buzz around it before a daemon had set so much as a paw on stage, not surprising considering that Nicholas Wright’s six-hour stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – created something of a stir when it first opened at The National in 2003 under the direction of Nicholas Hytner.
Challenging the role of religion within government and science, His Dark Materials has upset many people who perceive it to be ‘anti-Christian’. Yes, this is a sweeping narrative steeped in theology and philosophy (with more than a nod and a wink to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a cocked snook at C S Lewis), but ultimately it is the ageless story of good triumphing over evil. The story doesn’t mock or spurn spirituality but elevates it, teaching that with free-will comes the responsibility to act with integrity, morality and sometimes sacrifice.
The two main characters, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, move through parallel worlds inhabited by creatures such as soul-eating spectres, witches and armoured bears while trying to outwit the dark manoeuvrings of the mysterious politico-religious organisation, the Magisterium, the oppressive governing body on Lyra’s world.
His Dark Materials sprawls over three books, Wright’s stage play over two alternate three-hour performances. Director Wendy Payn, thank God, is a rare creature amongst community theatre directors in that she isn’t afraid to cut. You have no idea of how many plays NOT BAd has sat through where a director has failed to take control of a script and tailor it to the needs of his cast/audience/theatre space.
Payn had no such timidity, understanding that if this production was to have any chance of realising its preposterous ambition she was going to have to get creative with this first half of Wright’s adaptation and introduce it to Mrs Scissors and Mr Pritt Stick.
And narratively speaking, she largely succeeded. The story had pace, rattling through from beginning to admittedly a rather abrupt end (at a point roughly half-way through the The Subtle Knife). An audience member unfamiliar with Pullman’s books may have wondered what was going on in a couple of places, but this was due to some moments of poor diction at important plot points rather than an absence of the plot points themselves.
The skill of the young cast in delivering such a fast-paced and densely-written script cannot be overstated. We hate to patronise the cast with a ‘Bless, wasn’t everyone amazing?’ platitude so beloved of other reviewers but… they were seriously good.
As we say on our ‘Am-Dram’ page, with kids on stage there’s often so much wood around the whole place could go up – think Backdraft, The Musical. This never happens with Maltings Youth Theatre – we half suspect because Payn knows how to beat them so the bruises don’t show. It’s professionalism all the way.
But it’s boring, isn’t it? When everybody’s good? Because if you’re a child or a teenager or young adult, your ego burns hotter than the sun. You could power cities from the buzz you get having that suspicion confirmed – you know, that little voice inside your head that you never acknowledge or say out loud because you’ve been brought up as the Generation that Competitive Sports Day Forgot; that little voice that whispers, “Hey, kid. You kicked arse out there tonight. You were the best by miles. Better than all your loser friends. Better even than Downey Jr in Avengers Assemble.”
And because here at NOT BAd we’ve been brought up to thigh-stab competitors in the beanbag race with a shiv fashioned from a wooden spoon minus its egg, we’re going to nurture your shameless and unattractive bid for glory. We will name names and ultimately bestow a rarely awarded F.A.R.T. (Flyte Award for Realism in Theatre).
Lucinda Lawrie delivered a wonderfully naive, stubborn, fiery and impulsive Lyra, acting as counterpoint to Max Manning’s rather restrained and troubled Will. We particularly liked Max’s naturalistic delivery, a difficult thing to achieve on stage and still be heard. Well done.
Oh yes, which brings us back to the matter of diction. Dear Cast – don’t tell us Wendy hasn’t got a special hammer that she keeps on a string with which to hit cast members over the head when they mumble, because we won’t believe you. Don’t tell us you haven’t pa-pa-pa-bahed, ca-ca-ca-gahed and swim, swan, swimmed through your vocal exercises before each performance. See, we know Wendy would have taken you through your paces; she’s a director who doesn’t leave anything to chance.
While we can forgive instances of shaky projection because it’s a chuffing hard technique to master, there is no excuse for poor diction. You know; you’ve been taught. Yet occasionally words were swallowed and the soft wobbly parts thrown back up with the consonantal hard bones missing. These are the vital pivot joints for a change of vowel sound, so just stop it, okay? We were sat in the cheap seats and people too tight to cough up proper money for their entertainment rely on lip-reading because we’re so far from the bloody stage.
Now, where were we… ah, yes. Katie Hindmarsh. She’s great, isn’t she, our Kate? Perfect diction, mark you. Per-fect. Elegantly ruthless as Mrs Coulter, she still managed to portray her character’s internal struggle as her maternal instincts eventually kicked in.
And Sammy Reed as armoured bear Iorek Byrnison – an energetic joy to behold, as opposed to Paddy Flannigan who, as Fra Pavel, moved as if he was on silent and sinister wheels leaving a trail of oily malevolence across the stage.
A shout-out must also go to Frances Pattinson as head witch Serafina Pekkala. With impressive stage presence, she delivered each line with an ethereal lyricism perfectly suited to the part.
So. The moment has come. The moment where one will be anointed above all others. And the Flyte Award for Realism in Theatre goes to… Frazer Smiles. While to their credit many actors were playing two or more characters, Frazer’s four characters were so distinct, so separate and complete, that they really marked him out as one to watch. From an elderly academic to Irish gypsy John Faa, to a stupid armoured bear to the evil president of the Magisterium, Frazer demonstrated he has the ability to be a remarkably versatile actor. Bravo!
And let’s not overlook the contribution made by the younger members of Maltings Youth Theatre. They hit all their cues and had to manage numerous high-speed scene transitions and crowd choreography, which they did with mature aplomb. Again hats off to Wendy and her production team. Seeing all those shiny eager faces the thought did occur to us that it often must have felt like herding cats…
Steven Percy, Paul Summers and Jimmy Manningham pulled out all the stops on the tech-side of this production. The atmosphere Percy managed to create with the lighting really deserves special mention. The creative skills of the professional techy often goes unacknowledged but without these unsung heroes of switches, plugs and, er… other stuff that would kill you with wet hands, a show wouldn’t be much more than a lot of people on stage spitting as they say things loudly.
The artistic use of rear projection brought a little bit of West End magic into our small theatre, and the raised gantry created space and vertical movement. Original music by Paul Summers gave the whole story texture and punctuation.
So, yeah. Maltings Youth Theatre has produced a colossus of a show. The scale of it, the sheer ambition, the nerve, the absolute professionalism – we loved it for all those reasons.
But did it work?
Here’s the thing. As a play, yes, His Dark Materials broadly worked. However, as an adaptation of Pullman’s books we have our doubts. The narrative arc is so broad, the themes so large, that to wallow in it, to savour every morsel, to understand it, you need to step away so you can see it better. We don’t think Wright’s adaptation allows you to do that. The pace leaves no room for digestion, no time for thought, yet at the same time manages to be unwieldy and awkward.
In NOT BAd’s opinion, the book has won this particular battle. May the war continue!
What do you think, are we wrong? Are you a fan of the book, the film or the stage adaptation? Did you enjoy the show? Feel free to leave a comment by clicking on the button at the top of this post!