Set twelve years before the epic His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is the origin story, if you like, of the trilogy’s much-loved heroine, Lyra. A crisp adaptation by Bryony Lavery and wondrous direction by Nicholas Hytner make for a truly magical reimagining for stage.
The Bridge’s metaphorical curtains open to a cosy inn on the banks of the river in Oxford, where we meet our young protagonists at the centre of the tale. Twenty-something Samuel Creasey, in what is, incredibly, his first professional stage appearance, is instantly charming as the earnest and amusing 12-year-old Malcolm, and is joined by Ella Dacres as the feisty teenaged Alice.
Little do the pair know, they are about to embark on a journey to save baby Lyra (‘played’, in inverted commas, much to the audience’s delight, by an incredibly well-behaved tot) from the corrupt religious powers ravaging society, battling baddies and flood waters along the way.
It is Malcolm’s trusty vessel, La Belle Sauvage, which carries them on their nautical voyage as the ominous floodwaters rise. Before the audience’s eyes, via moving projection screens and special effects, the stage becomes a river, the canoe gliding smoothly across it, with waves, thunder and lightning crashing. The effect is dazzling, and indeed, the set changes throughout, from inn to convent to the colleges of Oxford, are swift and sleek, matching the pace of the narrative.
The characters’ dæmons (animals that act as an exterior embodiment of the human soul in Pullman’s world) accompany them throughout; illuminated, origami-like puppets, from birds and foxes through to snakes and hyenas, manipulated by puppeteers on stage. These dæmons are beautiful things, fragile and characterful, and wonderfully mastered. Still, one can’t help but feel that, at times, the stage becomes a little chaotic, cluttered with the bodies of both actors and puppeteers.
That being said, this is a production that encourages the viewer to revel in their imagination. It is a genuine treat, especially so for Pullman fans, who were clearly out in full force last night, and familiarity with his magical multiverse no doubt enhances this theatrical experience. Even for the uninitiated, however, The Book of Dust a rousing, fantastical evening’s entertainment that will appeal to youngsters and adults alike, much like Pullman’s writing.