sat 13/07/2024

The Book of Dust, Bridge Theatre review – as much intelligence and provocation as fleet-footed fun | reviews, news & interviews

The Book of Dust, Bridge Theatre review – as much intelligence and provocation as fleet-footed fun

The Book of Dust, Bridge Theatre review – as much intelligence and provocation as fleet-footed fun

The stage magic is both ingenious and beguiling

Life in constant flux: Ella Dacres as Alice Parslow and Samuel Creasey as Malcolm Polstead

It’s been seventeen years since Nicholas Hytner first directed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the National Theatre, ambitiously whirling audiences into Pullman’s universe of daemons, damnable clerics and parallel worlds.

Now he has collaborated with playwright Bryony Lavery to bring this fluent, fluid adaptation of the prequel to His Dark MaterialsThe Book of Dust – to the stage, delving into Pullman’s myth-infused landscape to create a compelling narrative for our times.

Samuel Creasey plays Malcolm Polstead, the bookish wide-eyed 12-year-old who becomes embroiled in forces beyond his control when he goes to visit potato-planting nuns and discovers they are concealing a baby. For the tiny minority who aren’t familiar with Pullman’s concept of the daemon as the manifestation of a person’s inner-self, we’re able to watch Malcolm’s daemon shift from mouse, to lizard to kingfisher, unable to settle as one life-form till he reaches adulthood.

Pullman has described The Book of Dust trilogy (this is an adaptation of the first book, La Belle Sauvage) as an exploration of consciousness. The fact that an individual’s daemon shifts shape until they fully mature underlines the idea that we become the kind of adult that we are through the intellectual and moral decisions that we make. Here we watch Malcolm, who has grown up in a pub, evolve as he realises that the girl baby is in danger because prophecies have foretold that she threatens the repressive church-like Magisterium. He is assisted in this by Ella Dacres’ iron-willed Alice Parslow, a fifteen-year-old with an unhappy childhood who works in his mother’s pub and, alongside her daemon, has an A-grade bullshit detector.

A huge part of the power of Pullman’s storytelling is that its many influences – not least Milton’s Paradise Lost – include quantum physics, Nordic and Greek mythology, spiced up by a withering dissection of the sexism and repression inherent in the history of the church. It’s a testament to Lavery’s adaptation that we always sense that conceptual complexity at the same time as being able to enjoy La Belle Sauvage as a fly-by-the-seat of your pants adventure. There’s no shortage of stage magic. But it’s helped by the sense of power and rigour in the words.

Though the stage magic is wonderfully beguiling in itself, not least because of Luke Halls' video design which enables Malcolm’s canoe to speed convincingly through waters that become increasingly turbulent as the action progresses. It also whisks the action through locations and seasons with projections of tangled woods and Gothic-style buildings that manage simultaneously to look real and like the best kind of book illustrations.

The outstanding puppetry in Life of Pi provides stiff competition for any puppet director in London right now. That said Barnaby Dixon’s puppet design subtly manages to evoke the life force of the characters’ different daemons through ethereal recreations of each animal with white lights that gleam like miniature souls. There’s a sense of a distinct identity established through the movement of each puppet, whether it’s in the swift yet nervous flutterings of Malcolm’s kingfisher or - most powerfully - the sinister maimed hyena that accompanies one of the story’s most repellent villains, Pip Carter’s silky-voiced Gerard Bonneville.

In proof, perhaps, that there’s no magic like old magic, one of the great show-stealing turns of the production is having the infant Lyra played by a real-life baby. The inherent unpredictability of babies inevitably means this will change the dynamic of the show each evening – but on the night I went the baby played her part to perfection, inducing gasps as she was revealed by the nuns to gaze out with wide-eyed wonder at the audience. How it will change the production when she, or indeed any other baby in the part, is screaming their head off it’s hard to know. But yesterday it felt like an inspired touch.

It also brings added potency to a Christmas show in which a baby girl Messiah who threatens to dismantle the hypocrisy of the Church is presented as an alternative version to a baby boy Messiah who, despite preaching tolerance, managed to inspire a despotic often violent institution. One of Pullman’s great accomplishments with both his trilogies has been to take a narrative that has sidelined women for centuries by fetishising their purity and innocence, and turn it into something more complex.

The male and female leads of Hytner’s production are supported by a strong ensemble, not least Naomi Frederick as the wise female academic, Dr Hannah Relf (above right), Ayesha Dharker as a stylishly diabolical Marisa Coulter (above left) and John Light as a thundering Lord Ariel. The nuns also, played by Holly Atkins, Wendy Mae Brown and Julie Atherton, give an enjoyable sense of the irreverence that can lurk beneath a wimple.

And when the flood sweeps through the story at the end we appreciate once more the degree to which this is a narrative that richly reflects our rapidly changing world. There’s a lot of great theatre playing in London right now, but this is where to head for if you’re looking for something with as much intelligence and provocation as fleet-footed fun.


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