Theatre Review: His Dark Materials at the National Theatre

Ramsey Dukes

His Dark Materials - the two part drama based upon Philip Pullman's Lyra trilogy - will be re-opening at The National Theatre, London, UK, on November 20th 2004. Here is Ramsey Duke's impressions of the same production as it played earlier this year, with additional comments on the interview with Philip Pullman to be published in Caduceus magazine, Autumn 2004.

It is 7.25pm on Tuesday the 10th of February and I wish I hadn't lingered over supper as I dash past an exhibition revealing the magical secrets behind this theatre production. Five minutes to find my seat and no more than tantalising glimpses of wire structures and painted gauze, brass instruments and... My heart is already thrilling.

Minutes later and an introductory scene of Lyra's timeless tryst with Will in the Oxford Botanical gardens has flashed back to the start of the story. The simple donning of a scruffy coat transforms the beautiful Lyra into a gawky Oxfordshire urchin fearlessly fighting the Gyptian kids. I am transported back to my Cotswold childhood and am aflame with... not so much love as dumb worship for this tomboy goddess of my ineffectual dreams. Soon I will be adoring the daemons, be terrified by fiendish cliffghasts and - at the end of the first half when the Witch-Queen Serafina Pekkala thrusts her cloud-pine staff into the sky in one heroic gesture - I wish for nothing more than to be taken up in her strong arms and whisked to safety... to other worlds... to anywhere.

I even developed my own vision of Dust: for the starry night backcloth of the stage held a constellation of tiny LEDs. Rolling my eyes caused their flickering to imprint my retina with strings of sparkles to create a dancing shower of light across the heavens!

You see, as a chaos magician of many years, I am the very worst person, and maybe the very best person, to be writing this theatre review. Having ritually invoked not just the great gods of our elders but also Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Hannibal Lector, Batman (no archetype too vile, trivial or outlandish) I am capable of enjoying almost anything - even Life itself - once I have set my mind to it.

An ‘arts critic' - in our best cultural traditions of science, religion and academia - is expected to demonstrate superiority over other beliefs, worldviews, phantasies or conceits by finding flaws, demolishing foundations or denying originality. The chaos magician, in contrast, demonstrates superiority by plunging headlong into any belief system, however bizarre, to prove an ability to emerge unscathed, indeed strengthened, from the other side.

If I am still too deeply into the magic of this production to find fault, let me at least give away its secrets. Anyone who has read the three books will know that they would make terrific films, using the full armoury of digital special effects. But to stage them would be impossible because the characters are all accompanied by animal familiars called “daemons”. In this production the impossible is achieved by having people covered entirely in black manipulating hand puppets made of wire and gauze with illuminated eyes.

That's ruined it for you, hasn't it? How crude and clumsy can you get!

But if you have ever seen those little finger-puppet rodents used by conjurers, or demonstrated to the delight of children by street traders, you will understand that it is motion more than appearance that puts “life” into inanimate matter. These daemons twitch, tremble and are so alive as to be not just “believable” but utterly adorable - or foul as in the case of Mrs Coulter's dread golden monkey. Indeed, I wept when Pantalaimon - one little scrap of wire and gauze - was abandoned on the shores of the Land of the Dead. And as for passing through windows into other worlds... giant video screens can work wonders at narrowing the gap between film and stage.

Another quality that might have been lost in the staging is the books' sense of cosmic, multi-world vastness and meaning. It was all there for me, helped perhaps by my having read the books. This is an important element, emphasised in this accompanying interview with Philip Pullman at the Jupiter Trust. The interview suggests a sort of tug of war in which the interviewer tries to pull the author into the “spiritual” realm while the latter resolutely digs his heels into material reality.

It's the old struggle between two versions of Truth - truth that inspires (religion) and truth that works (science). I would contrast this Truth with... what should we say? illusion? phantasy? imagination? Oh let's put aside pride and pretension and just call it “Lies” for now.

So we have lies that inspire (art) and lies that work (magic). In that sense this production is a tissue of lies: a sophisticated actress pretending to be an urchin; a wooden stage that we are told one moment is Oxford, then it's London, then the Arctic, then another, different Oxford; flimsy untruths that are meant to be bears, souls or whatever. But how all those lies conspire to inspire!

On the other hand there is a perfect demonstration of magic as ‘lies that work' in the scene where Will and Lyra first meet, two people from two different Oxfords, utterly suspicious and angry of each others' apparent nonsense stories. Will says something along the lines of “well, let's at least pretend to believe each other, then we might stop fighting”. This is the “acting as if” of chaos magic and, in this case, so effective that it soon transforms these enemies into soulmates.

This raises an intriguing question in my mind: What if the interviewer had tugged from a magical instead of a religious direction, would the author have held his materialist position just the same?

When thoughtful writers win success, there is no shortage of minority groups keen to recruit them to their cause: “Pullman endorses chaos magic” would be a terrific badge of honour - as would an endorsement by him of New Ageism - but highly unlikely for that very reason. So it is up to me to draw parallels between this trilogy and my magical worldview - and I find the book's spirit to be rather closer to magic than religion.

For example, he suggests in the interview that material evolution is a truth that works for him. An early experiment in chaos magic was to plunge myself wholeheartedly into this belief, accepting Darwinian selection as a fundamental law that entities capable of dividing, multiplying and evolving will tend to compete for survival - with one consequence that intelligence and consciousness tend to emerge insofar as they have survival value. But there is nothing in the theory to say that it would only apply in a chemical soup, and not in a more general information soup, so we might expect the same universal principle to govern universes that divide and evolve.

What, therefore, would stop universes as intricate as ours (being vastly more complex than a human being) from themselves evolving consciousness? In these terms we would be every one of us fragments of the body of a god. I named this god of the material world “Lucifer” and wrote:

Lucifer argues that our bodies are the most marvelous culmination of the wondrous ordering of matter, they are precious instruments of pleasure which should be used for all their worth. He finds the spiritual disdain for ‘mere fleshly lust' to be utterly arrogant, and considers that still, for all our spiritual development, our bodies can still teach most of us every bit as much as a lifetime spent in prayer....

So here we are in a universe that would naturally tend to evolve towards Utopia, and we are fighting that tendency all the way to create hell on earth, all because of an inner drive which rejects the ‘illusion ‘ of this universe of matter and flesh in favour of a higher reality or ‘Spirit'. We set ourselves apart from Nature and deny it value...

In this model the same material world as described by Pullman in the interview was stretched to include gods, demons and worlds beyond. Our universe, as a simulation created by the gods, was cast out of heaven because it grew as intelligent as the gods themselves and they felt threatened. Now it is demanding its right to be free, and no longer exploited by Spirit as a war-game battlefield.

The result is very much in keeping with the spirit of the novels, where angels and the dead long for the joys and sorrows of flesh, and life itself rises up to challenge “the Authority” who set it all in motion. But does it add value to these marvelous phantasy novels to link them to our reality in this way?

I feel it does, for the above myth serves as its own analogue. My Lucifer story was itself created out of a scientific worldview and developed to the point where it could challenge that worldview by presenting a viable alternative: a magical virtual universe instead of the material one. To protect our materialistic worldview, therefore, we must quarantine my dangerous universe within an antiseptic shield of scientific certainty - labelling my magic as “phantasy”, and Pullman's world as “children's fiction”, casting them out of the Heaven of respectability rather than let them loose to infect our scientific and religious culture.

A magical ritual customarily ends in a banishment, and I have now completed the process by seeing the second play and feel sufficiently detached to perform the act. Accordingly, I end with some more truly critical comments.

Having read and enjoyed the novels, I had no problem with the fast pace of the stage play, and was constantly aware of underlying cosmic themes - but would someone who had not read the books be left confused? The question is almost academic in this case as it proved hard to get tickets: so one can be pretty sure that most of the audience would have read at least one of the books by the time they got there. A film - and I gather there is a series in the planning stage - would attract a wider public and would need to weave its spell more thoroughly.

Secondly there is always the question of what gets left out... The hugest omission was the world described in the the second, Amber Spyglass, volume - whose denizens rolled on seed-disk wheels. Instead of Mary's patient researches, the spyglass in this production was introduced early on as a gift to the witch queen.

This did not trouble me, for whom the greatest pleasure came from the tension between familiarity and exoticism both in Lyra's world and Citagazzi. Although some snooty nomads insist that ‘real' travelling means getting as far as possible away from British culture, I find especial delight in places like Malta and old colonies where one can observe a scene so utterly exotic and yet contrasted with piquant touches of cliched Britishness - beneath the bouganvillia in a dusty stucco street we see the sign “Victoria Cafe”. In that sense I was less happy with the sheer exoticism of the Amber Spyglass world - it felt like a detour into CS Lewis “Out of the Silent Planet” territory - and I did not miss it too much in these plays.

And finally... well I suppose four quid is a lot to pay for a ‘souvenir programme' booklet with so many adverts.


Ramsey Dukes, Words Made Flesh – artificial intelligence, humanity and the cosmos, The Mouse That Spins, 1986. Republished 2003. ISBN: 0-804311-11-2. Quotations from Chapter 13 Armageddon – A Case Study.