Magazine article The New Yorker

DARK MATERIAL; LONDON POSTCARD Series: 3/6

Magazine article The New Yorker

DARK MATERIAL; LONDON POSTCARD Series: 3/6

Article excerpt

Unless you reserved a seat in December, even before the reviews came out, the only way you can see the adaptation of Philip Pullman's trilogy "His Dark Materials," at the National Theatre in London this winter, is to stand in line and hope to get one of the thirty seats or sixty spaces for standees that are set aside for sale on the day of the performance. Otherwise, you will have to miss a play that lasts six hours (it can be seen in one sitting, with a dinner break, or on separate days, in three-hour segments); includes witches, angels, armored polar bears, talking dolls who ride dragonflies, evil prelates, a hundred and seventeen scene changes, multiple universes, Timothy Dalton, and a hot-air balloon; and features one of the few theatrical representations of the death of God (who turns out to be a tiny old guy in a plastic casket, and who, when he has his big moment, literally croaks). The run ends in March, and the production was designed for a special multitiered revolving stage, in the Olivier Theatre at the National, so it's not likely to be remounted anywhere else. There are plans, though, to bring it back at the end of 2004.

The first volume of Pullman's trilogy, called "Northern Lights" in England and "The Golden Compass" in the United States, came out in 1995. The books are basically for twelve-year-olds, but they have acquired a following rivalling that of "The Lord of the Rings." The claim is based on an empirical finding. Last fall, in a BBC poll undertaken to determine "the UK's best-loved book," "His Dark Materials" finished third, behind "Pride and Prejudice" and the great Frododyssey itself. (The BBC received three-quarters of a million votes. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" finished fifth, just ahead of "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Winnie the Pooh," and "1984." "Ulysses" limped across the line in seventy-eighth place.)

At a recent performance, a few people left during the dinner break, but not many, and though there were plenty of twelve-year-olds in the audience, it was by no means a young crowd. And there were no complaints heard afterward about the length. The reviews, when they did appear, were mixed; some critics were unhappy because the play wasn't enough like the books, which they loved, and some were unhappy because it was too much like the books, which they thought were overrated. …

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