Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy of fantasy novels regularly top polls as the best children’s books of all time. They function simultaneously as rip-roaring adventures, complete with witches, armoured polar bears and Texan hot-air balloonists, and as a discussion of physics, philosophy and the nature of original sin. Pullman’s novels are crammed with rich inter-textual allusions: to Milton, Homer, the Icelandic Sagas, Dante, Blake, Wordsworth, the Shelleys, Wagner, Barrie and Tolkien. There’s even an echo of Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, which assumes the Reformation has not taken place.
How do you shoehorn all that on stage? Nicholas Hytner first had a go in 2004 at the National Theatre, turning the books into a six-hour theatrical marathon across two nights. Armed with a colossal budget, the Olivier’s mighty drum revolve and a cast of 92, the shows nonetheless received a slightly tepid response: critics felt that something of the novels’ magic had been lost among all the smoke and mirrors.
Deciding to adapt the novels as this term’s Senior Play, therefore, may seem like an act of desperate hubris. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious project that I’ve attempted since arriving at Shrewsbury, but such is the talent of the young performers and technicians of the Drama department that they rise to whatever challenge is thrown at them.
One of the most exciting elements of the rehearsal process so far has been the experience of working with a hugely talented team of dancers, led by our resident choreographer, Sian Archer, to create the daemons. In Pullman’s imagined world, daemons are the visible souls of human beings, which take animal form. This has led to some curious conundrums and some fabulously creative solutions: Fiona Lim demonstrating how a snow leopard can climb stairs and Georgina Cooper calmly announcing that monkeys backflip in a crisis.
After All My Sons, when I cheerily informed Theatre Technician Alex Davies that I would like him to build me a life-size fighter plane and crash it through the back wall of the Ashton, I think he was looking forward to an easier term. Turns out that magical windows into alternative universes pose their own design problems.
As ever, the theatre could not function without its team of hugely dedicated technicians, and I am particularly grateful to those students who give up their time to paint sets, operate sound and lighting and create hair and make-up designs.
His Dark Materials will be performed in the Ashton Theatre, 22nd - 25th November 2017, 7.30pm. Tickets are available from www.ticketsource.co.uk/shrewsburyschool