His Dark Materialsbased on the novels by Philip Pullmanadapted by Nicholas Wright
Further production details:www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
NT Education National TheatreSouth Bank London SE1 9PX
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Workpack written byNikki Gamble, Pat Pinsentand Kimberley Reynolds
Editors Kimberley Reynolds andEmma Thirlwell
Design Alexis BaileyPatrick Eley
His Dark Materials Workpack
ContentsThe Play 2
Further research 23
national theatre education workpack 2
Please note: complementary material, includingimages, audio diaries, interviews, andrecordings from rehearsals and performancescan be found at the companion website,www.stagework.org.uk. The site will grow overthe weeks of performance so it is worth visitingit more than once.
Philip Pullmans novels, Northern Lights (1995),The Subtle Knife (1997) and The AmberSpyglass (2000) make up the hugely popular HisDark Materials trilogy. Appealing to both adultsand children, the books have sold in theirmillions, been translated into more than thirtylanguages, and from December 2003, are beingperformed at the National Theatre as two three-hour plays, adapted by Nicholas Wright anddirected by Nicholas Hytner. The success of thetrilogy lies not only in its ability to engagereaders in an extraordinary and powerfulimaginary journey, but also in itsacknowledgement of deeply-felt cultural needs:the need to interrogate ethical issues,encompassing scientific research and the placeof religion in contemporary society; the need torethink adult-child relationships when childhooditself seems to be under threat: some adults arereluctant to leave childhood behind creatingthe new phenomenon of the kiddult andpaedophiles are feared to be lurking in thelargely un-patrolled dimension of cyberspace;the need to question traditional institutions and
crucially, the possibility for effective action byindividuals.
In many ways, the belief these texts register inthe possibility of taking action and the necessityto assume responsibility for creating the self arethe most original, most encouraging and mostPullmanesque themes developed in the courseof His Dark Materials. Where many of the mostfamous childrens books, including Alice inWonderland, Peter Pan and The Chronicles ofNarnia (all, incidentally, regularly performed toChristmas audiences) depict growing up as theloss of innocence and the end of the golden ageof childhood and so trap their protagonists in aperpetual state of childhood, His Dark Materialshas quite a different attitude to growing up. Tosurvive and become a moral, responsible adult,capable of functioning in the world is the goal itsets Lyra and Will, who are role models for itsreaders. Growing up is the ultimate adventure inPullmans books. It isnt easy; indeed, in theircase it will include loss, separation and betrayalas well as love and friendship and the manypleasures that come with experience. LikeWilliam Blake before him, Pullman showsreaders that life cant tolerate perpetualinnocence; experience isnt diminution, thoughit is change. These books encourage readers toembrace the challenges that lie ahead and to beexcited by the opportunities they have to makean impact on the world around them, while inthe process constructing identities of whichthey can be proud. In what are uncertain times,this is surely a valuable lesson for the young,and one that promotes the skills being fosteredthrough the new Citizenship curriculum. It is notaccidental that this message is conveyedthrough the medium of fantasy.
Rosemary Jackson has described fantasy asthe literature of subversion for the way it givesexpression to the unsaid and the unseen ofculture: that which has been silenced, madeinvisible, covered over, and made absent.1 Itmight be more accurate to term it a literature ofsubstitution, since fantasy works bysubstituting something acceptable to anindividual or her/his society for something thatis forbidden, transgressive, feared, or otherwiseproblematic. It is important to keep both thesubversive and the substitutive dimensions of
Anna Maxwell Martin (as Lyra) and Armoured Bears
photo Ivan Kyncl
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fantasy in mind when thinking about it as agenre and when reading or watching His DarkMaterials. What is being articulated in thesetexts that cannot be expressed so effectivelyelsewhere in culture, and what forms ofsubstitution take place in the narrative? Shouldwe be surprised that a work of fantasy is givensuch stature and discussed across the agerange?
Fantasys appeal to all age groupsOne of the strengths of fantasy is its strongappeal to all age groups. It is surely significantthat among the twenty-one most popular booksselected by the public during 2003 in the BBCsThe Big Read, the six which can mostaccurately be described as being written for ayoung audience include five fantasy novels.Among these is Philip Pullmans His DarkMaterials trilogy. Also in this list, and still verynear the margins of childrens literature in theirappeal to young adults, are other fantasies, byJ.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and DouglasAdams. From parents reading Winnie-the-Poohto pre-school children and enjoying thesimilarities between the books characters andtheir own grown-up friends, to the teenage discworld fanatic sharing his/her enthusiasm withparents or older siblings, the audience for anyfantasy story has the potential to be broaderthan that for realism.
Why does fantasy seem to appeal to a widerrange of readers than realism? One reason issurely the fact that most fantasy books allowreaders to make their own interpretations ofplot, events and characters. Readers maysimply enjoy an exciting story and getting toknow interesting characters from the inside, butthey can also read the books as metaphors forother aspects of life. Most of Pullmans youngerreaders are likely to be attracted by thepersonalities of Lyra and Will, recognising, inthe development of their characters andrelationship, issues which are relevant toadolescents. They will relish the travel todifferent worlds, Lyras search for Roger, herconversations with Pantalaimon, and the detailsof Wills use of the subtle knife. Adult readers,especially those with a literary background,while not rejecting these elements, may befascinated by the differences between LyrasOxford and the one we know, enjoy recognisingPullmans echoes of Milton and Blake, and beinterested by his views about religion, whetherthey share his unbelief or not. The fantasy genreallows these and other readings to coexist,where a realistic novel might be over-stretchedif it attempted to offer the same range ofpossibilities.
Departure from everyday reality has alwaysproved an effective background for theexploration of religious and philosophical ideas;Dantes Divine Comedy and Miltons ParadiseLost explore theological ideas in a cosmicsetting, while the largely down-to-earthCanterbury Tales by Chaucer are primarilyconcerned with abuses in the medieval churchand sexual relationships between thecharacters in the stories. This period of timeout from everyday reality, and especially theelement of disguise in fantasy makes it aparticularly effective vehicle for commenting oncontemporary issues without being overlydidactic; it also makes it possible to explorewhat, if dealt with realistically, could be toopainful. Like dreams, fantasy distances difficultmaterial, but this does not mean that it isescapist. As the National Theatres rehearsalprocesses make clear, His Dark Materials, likenearly all fantasy, doesnt escape but is closelylinked to reality. For example, the audio diary2
Niamh Cusack (as Serafina Pekkala) with her
photo Ivan Kyncl
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kept by the actor Russell Tovey, who plays thecharacter Roger, explains how research intotopical issues and real-life stories was used tohelp the actors understand the emotions of thechildren who were kidnapped by the Gobblers:We sat and talked about comparing how thechildren feel, with the film The MagdaleneSisters where the girls get picked up and putinto a convent for the rest of their lives [and]how kids during the war (cockney kids) weresent to Australia to live and how they weresending letters to their parents and their parentswere sending letters to them, but neither everreceived any of the letters. They also readpolice reports on Iraqi children who had beentaken, beaten and mentally tortured.Preparatory work of this kind reveals muchabout the impact of His Dark Materials, andshows Nicholas Hytners decision to adapt thework for the National Theatre, made well beforePullman was awarded the Whitbread Prize forLiterature and before the current war in Iraq, tohave been prophetic.
It is not necessary to rehearse the frequentattempts to categorise different varieties offantasy (a list of further reading about fantasy isprovided in the bibliography if you wish to seehow others have done this), but it is worthnoting some of the types of fantasy that HisDark Materials is not. Unlike some of Pullmansother work, such as Count Karlstein andClockwork, and also unlike J.K. Rowlings
Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials haslittle place for magic, at least in the sense of itsbeing in the hands of powerful magicians.Despite the importance of dmons, it cantreally be called animal fantasy, like KennethGrahames The Wind in the Willows and A.A.Milnes Winnie-the-Pooh. Though there is muchtravel between universes, it is not time-travel,unlike Philippa Pearces Toms MidnightGarden. Instead, His Dark Materials involvesalternative universes,