Nearly two decades ago, Nicholas Hytner triumphantly staged Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials at the National Theatre. He returns to that questing world with this version of the first volume in another trilogy, set 12 years earlier than His Dark Materials. Hytner displays the same wizard’s touch for turning Pullman’s fast, fantasy narratives into theatrical gold. His supremely elegant production is vast, but never unruly, on a set that dazzles but does not swamp the storytelling.
Bryony Lavery’s adaptation is lean without short-changing us on the story. A newborn Lyra Belacqua is being hunted by the theocratic authorities after her anti-Christian future is prophesied. Malcolm is the 10-year-old son of an inn-keeper (a single mother here) who becomes embroiled in Lyra’s care along with his prickly fellow adventurer, Alice.
The central, ideological battle between scientists and the sinister forces of the Magisterium is captured with a clean economy and some of Pullman’s inquiries into the nature of matter and consciousness are briefly summarised, though purists may want a little more.
In some scenes, Lyra is played by a real and formidably well-behaved baby which instantly raises the stakes and heightens our emotional responses. Samuel Creasey, an adult actor playing Malcolm, gives an uncannily convincing performance of boyhood. He is cheeky, outspoken and earnest. Ella Dacres, as Alice, is his steely equal and there is chemistry between them, although Lavery’s script does not develop their romance to the same degree as the book.
The dark forces are convincingly troubling: the body of a woman floats face down in the water, we hear the sound of a neck being broken. Ayesha Dharker, as Marisa Coulter, is a cultish figure, encouraging pupils to join the League of St Alexander and Pip Carter’s predatory Gerard Bonneville has a sibilant menace, along with his giggling hyena daemon.
The stage is action-filled with one dangerous turn after another, which reflects the spirit of the original faithfully, albeit unleavened by the deeper philosophical ruminations in the book. The production only falls short of perfection for those who find themselves flagging at Pullman’s – rather than Hytner’s – breakneck pace and plotting.
It is no small accomplishment that a story which teems with such a large cast of nuns, church authorities and terror police, along with an underground resistance and a secret service of scientists, is incorporated on stage with a sleek discipline that avoids overcrowding and confusion. The characters never feel flat and they have interesting intellectual complications. There is also greater wit than in Pullman’s book: the nuns make wry asides, Malcolm brings hapless comedy and throwaway lines are humorously delivered.
Bob Crowley’s stage design glides seamlessly from the Trout Inn to the convent, the inner realms of Oxford University and then a flood that fills floors and walls and creates a convincing illusion of Malcolm’s canoe – and the stage itself – afloat on waves. Luke Halls’ video design, Jon Clark’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound design combine expertly: there are diaphanous mobile screens that create the effect of depth, with beautiful pencil sketches of trees and windows.
What is more remarkable is the production’s ability to keep closely to Pullman’s earth-bound and realistic brand of fantasy. Just as in Hytner’s previous production, the daemons are puppets (kingfishers, lemurs, badgers, each as gorgeous as the next). Designed and directed by Barnaby Dixon, they are a marvel and glow from within like luminous origami. They seem like Jungian projections rather than airy, fantastical creatures.
Pullman, an avowed atheist, cannot resist the narrative lure of biblical imagery and they abound here, from the almighty flood to the Herod-like hunt for baby Lyra, right down to the final image of this marked child, miraculously saved, like Jesus in a manger. Here is the ultimate Christmas show – with sacrilegious twists.
• At the Bridge theatre, London, until 26 February.