Writer: Philip Pullman
Adapter: Bryony Lavery
Director: Nicholas Hytner
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is theatre at its most magical. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it’s a visual stunner, as well as a fast-paced and thrilling adventure story. Bryony Lavery skillful adapts Philip Pullman’s novel, but audiences don’t need to be familiar with Pullman’s work to become thoroughly immersed in this parallel world of humans and dæmons.
In the Trout Inn on the riverside outside Oxford, two young people, Alice and Malcolm, are fiercely at odds. Alice washes for Mrs Polstead, Malcolm’s mother, while Malcolm, a loyal and kindly twelve-year old, runs errands for her in his rowing boat, La Belle Sauvage. Samuel Creasey plays Malcolm with warmth and conviction. Alice, in contrast, is a sharp, angry teenager, beholden to no one. She is given spirit and grace by Ella Dacres.
Each of the humans has their own dæmon, not an evil spirit but a living embodiment of their innermost being, a friend, companion and protector, intimately bound to them throughout life. Dæmons appear in animal form, but can shape shift until taking on permanent form at puberty. Here they are breath-takingly incarnated as puppets: Barnaby Dixon’s small dogs snuffle, birds squawk and flutter, a snake slithers and a deeply sinister hyena laughs maniacally.
Together Alice and Malcolm discover the existence of a baby, Lyra, left in the safe-keeping of a nearby convent. This abandoned child is of mysterious importance to powerful conflicting forces. People live in fear of the CCD, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, whose violent enforcers roam the land seeking out heretics. Marisa Coulter (Ayesha Dharker), meanwhile, indoctrinates school pupils about a youth cult, the League of St Alexander, encouraging them to report family and neighbours who speak out against the rigidly orthodoxies of the sinister Magisterium.
So when the CCD raid the convent in search of Lyra, Malcolm and Alice gather her up and steal away on La Belle Sauvage. And it is here that their adventure begins. The staging is awe-inspiring. Bob Crowley’s dazzling design creates the ever-changing watery world of the Thames, from the gentle backwater around the Trout, to the terrifying biblical flood which sweeps across the land. Video and lighting design by Luke Halls and Jon Clark create gorgeous effects of river water swirling across the stage, with Paul Arditti’s sound design evoking both gently lapping water and a roaring torrent. Composer Grant Olding’s evocative music maintains a dark pulse throughout.
Pullman is brilliant at creating ambivalent characters. When Marisa Coulter first appeared in Northern Lights, her dæmon, a beautiful golden monkey, was hard to interpret. Was Coulter’s own allure all it seemed? But here it is more obvious in the case of the good-looking Bonneville (Pip Carter), first seen chatting up Alice in the inn. He has a superficial charm but the fact that his dæmon is a damaged but still terrifying hyena, is a warning that his charm may be specious. The full extent of his depravity slowly emerges. The compact between human and dæmon is sacred. If someone injures your dæmon they directly injure you. So when Bonneville turns on his hyena, giving it a brutal thrashing, there is a real sense of horror. This isn’t, by the way, a show for pre-teenage children. There are frightening and disturbing moments throughout, and the play’s language is pleasingly uncensored.
There are further shocks when other adult figures reveal themselves as selfish, inadequate or vicious. What should be the fairytale ending of the children’s epic boat journey – safety in the paternal embrace of Lord Asriel – is denied us. There is a happy ending, of course, but one that gestures towards the future, and, with any luck, further productions of Pullman’s novels.
Runs until 26 February 2022