Yesterday, I was enjoying a pre-show drink in the downstairs bar of the Oxford Playhouse with my wife and daughter ready to go into Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy short-run theatre adaptation. And there was Philip Pullman. The man himself. Talking with his writing chums, or maybe they were just friends. I left him to it. No mere mortal should ever approach a REALLY FAMOUS WRITER at the opening of his own play. No mere mortal should ever shove a programme under such a superstar's nose and say, "Would you sign this for me, please." It's a no no. You should leave these elevated beings alone. Period.
Delayed by a 'slight technical hitch' we finally entered into the strangely minimised and oddly drawn-out world of the first half of the NEAR SIX HOUR Oxford Playhouse adaptation of Philip Pullman's trilogy. Later in the evening we returned for the concluding half of the trilogy (minus the elephant-like Mulefa (and no early mention of Will's cat demon outside Count Boreal's house in modern Oxford)).
How was the adaptation then, in general?
My wife and daugher had seen the sumptuous FIRE MAKER'S DAUGHTER back in 2005 and I'd heard that this treatment of HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy had been technical eye-candy in other venues. So I was expecting quite a visually inspiring spectacle as deserves such a broad-sweeping trilogy. And what does it mean, strangely minimised?
We're talking about BIG BLACK SCREENS and BIG BLACK LADDERS. The "set" was a series of descending and ascending big black screens. The witches rode in on big black ladders that slid (were pushed) from left to right across the stage. Black ladders. Oh, and boxes. Lots of use was made of boxes - white, grey and black (star speckled).
Lighting was functional, though it missed the mark once or twice in tight close-up, and aptly coveyed the 'cutting doors between the worlds'. Sound was a good support act.
And the specifics?
The choice of adult leads was wise and it gave the show the potential for some real emotional portrayal. But it fell a bit flat. Lyra was over whiny. Will was over shouty. The Professor of Jordan Uni in Lyra's Oxford was excellent, really convincing - a pro.
The innovative puppetry of the daemons was great, the designs (again) minimalist but very effective. But the crouching puppeteer was completely visible throughout all the show. Every daemon puppeteer was visible throughout the show. Their costume was sorta non-descript and looked a bit cheapish, out of place. And you sorta felt the pain of the pupetter crouching like that for so long. I'd have preferred puppeteers in black - there but not visible.
Does anyone remember Bear in the Big Blue House? Jim Henson studios. It was obviously a bloke with his arm up inside the head and one working arm. It was crude but effective, you believed this towering thing was commanding the screen. Well, that was the sort of thing I was hoping for with the Armoured Bears, a huge (maybe lightweight version the actor could slip into and out of) polar bear shape. What I got was (again, missing suspension of disbelief) some bloke in a white fur coat inside two pieces of white plastic with a metal hoop round his waist.
The religious aspect of the books was made much more blatant and re-iterated on stage than it seemed to be in the novels (which I've read). For want of humour I might even say the delivery was a bit 'preachy'. The atheist overtone was really obvious as I was sat next to a couple of American guys who were clearly theists judging by their snorts and gasps of digust? as the actors delivered their fundamentalist lines.
And the Subtle Knife - is it a nuclear weapon that can flip the universe inside out at its whim ? It just dawned on me as I sat there. Is the Death of the Authority the death not of God but the death of our atomic Freedom? Does the death of the Subtle Knife confirm our exile on Planet Earth?
Best bit, in fact the highlight of the show, the wacky plastic-doll Galivespians spy/assassins, very well acted and very funny.
Summary? The show was long and involved but lacklustre in the extreme, the set was dull, the script tiresome. And where were the skies full of witches? Where were the enormous battle between good and evil? Had no-one thought to add animated backdrops? It's all been done before, why not now?
And what was that really fucking terrible Texan accent of Scoresby? Bad, laughably weak - I mean people were laughing at it whenever he was on stage.
I felt cheated out of my money.