Past Shows

His Dark Materials

by Nicholas Wright

Performed July 2018 at The Fitzwilliam Museum

When the children of Oxford go missing, it is down to Lyra and her daemon to save them. But all that Lyra knows is turned upside down when she crosses into another world and meets Will.

As the threads of the universe unravel, these fateful companions enter an unimaginable quest that could change the course of everything…

His Dark Materials was first performed in the Olivier at the National Theatre in 2003. The production note at the back of the play-text clarifies that the play was written for this epic space and, what Nicholas Wright calls, the “seldom seen, subterranean monster” that is the Olivier’s drum revolve. The architecture of incredible stage machinery is weaved into the fabric of the play’s structure: a six-hour epic with 84 different scenes and 60 different locations. However, Wright’s notes also hope that the play “could have a different kind of life in productions that have no resources at all”. It is in this simple and magical wish that our production began to take shape.

Our production placed its emphasises on the act of creation, and our task to bring Philip Pullman’s fantastical universe(s) to life via the power of theatre. As Peter Brook brilliantly asserts in The Empty Space, a blank canvas is the rawest surface on which theatrical imagination can act. Our set was a white surface and our company of thirteen actors are dressed in all white. On this canvas, His Dark Materials was mixed together and created. Pullman’s story chimes perfectly with Brook’s theory. It is here that our production differed most simply from the National’s vast original. Our thirteen actors played ninety plus characters. The cast worked diligently and tirelessly to create this world together. The choral music, set to the words of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (integral to much of Pullman’s writing), was completely improvised and changes with every performance. The cast embodied the greatest qualities of collaborative theatre. This also provided a wonderful continuity to an otherwise rapid play. The actor’s body itself becomes a blank canvas. And the forces of “dust” must act to transform them into scholars, gobblers and tartars. The bears were made of people rather than puppets – which involved a fascinating session watching YouTube videos of polar bears – and the unsettled child daemons, like Pan, were simply performed in the “ensemble whites” to hopefully align the imagination of the audience with that of the child.

During this epic production, we hoped to transport the audience to a whole host of different locations. We filled our empty museum space with projection, music, soundscapes, light and bodies, to shatter the glass box of history and artefact, and unleash Philip Pullman’s characters from their paginated paper home as they took three-dimensional form on stage.