Heart of darkness
His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy, His Dark Materials took readers to a different world. Kelly Apter speaks to two women hoping to do the same for audiences
Three novels, hundreds of characters and numerous parallel worlds – Philip Pullman’s imagination knows no bounds. Between them, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass have captivated millions of readers worldwide. Fitting their contents between the pages of a book, however, is a very different proposition to depicting it on stage.
Nicholas Wright was the man charged with the unenviable task of adapting all three novels for the theatre, turning Pullman’s is Dark Materials trilogy into a two-part stage play. From there, Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and West Yorkshire Playhouse joined forces to bring it to life. Cast member Emma Manton, who plays Lord Asriel’s dæmon and witch queen Serafina Pekkala, acknowledges the enormity of it all.
‘It’s a huge responsibility to take something that’s so loved and put it on the stage,’ she says. ‘And inevitably, huge swathes of the novels had to go, otherwise we’d be in the theatre for three weeks to get through it all.’ Using beautifully crafted puppets, the show tackles Pullman’s first theatrical challenge – the dæmons. How does Manton find playing Lord Asriel’s soul, aka a snow leopard?
‘It’s very strange because essentially you’re only playing half a character,’ she explains. ‘I suppose it’s like being part of a double act – you have to have a sixth sense with each other.’ Dæmons aside, the production has a less-is-more approach, using minimal staging to create Pullman’s diverse locations. Film adaptation The Golden Compass may have done it all for us, but visitors to the stage show need to bring their imaginations.
‘Film is so literal,’ says Manton. ‘Everything is there and if it doesn’t look the way you imagined it when you read the book, you instantly have to readjust. Whereas our production doesn’t fill in every blank, so the audience can do that themselves.’
Co-director Sarah Esdaile agrees that the stage can offer something film can’t. ‘There’s an immediacy in the theatre,’ she says, ‘that’s actually closer to sitting privately reading and conjuring a world in your imagination. And I think the liveness of what we’re doing is very magical.’ With 17 actors playing well over 100 characters, the stage show has been a huge undertaking for all. Ensuring the audience knows exactly what’s happening was a number one priority, especially given Pullman’s young following.
‘The clarity of the narrative has been of paramount importance to us and telling the story is key,’ says Esdaile. ‘But so far the younger members of the audience have been completely engrossed by it. They bring a knowledge of the books with them and are very eloquent about what’s been left in or taken out.’
To go the distance with both parts, staying power is also required of the young audience – but according to Esdaile, it’s well worth the effort. ‘It’s very exciting when people see Part One in the afternoon and Part Two in the evening,’ she says. ‘To immerse yourself in a story, go off and have something to eat, and then come back and re-immerse yourself with the same audience and actors. It feels appropriate, because they’re very epic novels so it should be an epic theatrical experience.’
His Dark Materials Parts One and Two, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Thu 21–Sun 24 May.