As soon as Nicholas Hytner was appointed to run the National Theatre - this was in 2000 - he had decided that he wanted to do a play for a young audience. So many shows for younger audiences seemed like dinosaurs from another age. Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The Jungle Book was written in 1894, The Wizard of 0z in 1900 and Peter Pan in 1904. The Wind in the Willows - which Nick himself had directed in this theatre was written in 1908. It wasn't until 20 years after The Wind in the Willows that women under 30 were allowed to vote in Britain. These plays were from another age entirely, they probably appealed more to the grandparents or even great-grandparents of today's young audiences.
Nick wanted to do a play that spoke as directly to a young audience as a movie at the local multiplex. He didn't know what the play he wanted to do would be about, he only knew what it had to be like. It was a colleague of his, Jack Bradley, the National Theatre's literary manager, who recommended he read His Dark Materials. Anyone who has read the books might have thought that this was Jack's idea of a joke.
Nick would not have to get very far into His Dark Materials to see that it was almost impossible to stage. The text of any play is a mixture of speeches and stage directions and most plays contain fairly simple stage directions, along the lines of 'he enters the room' or 'she picks up the phone' or 'he lights a cigarette.' People who prefer plays to novels sometimes argue that novels are plays with too many stage directions.
His Dark Materials has lines that could never work on stage the way they do in print. "The bird's head exploded in a mist of red and white". That's a short moment that looks tough to stage, but here's an even shorter one, "The cat stepped forward, and vanished". When Nick reached the big descriptive passages he was surely going to chuck the books aside and look for something else. The entire budget for the production would have to be spent on a single paragraph.
Nevertheless, Nick took Jack's advice and he was halfway through the first volume, Northern Lights, when he said, "Yes, this feels like it", and halfway through the second volume, The Subtle Knife, when he said to Jack, "Let's get the stage rights". Taking risks is essential in the theatre, and the decision he had just taken was high risk. It's one of those things that if you hesitate," Nick said, "You don't do. It felt crazy, it felt unstageable, but I felt we had to try."
IN CONVERSATION WITH NOVELIST PHILIP PULLMAN
Why do you believe theatre is so important for young people?
"Well, I'll go back a bit and start with this point. Never before have so many people, including children, spent so long sitting watching other people pretend to do things. On the telly, of course. So I'm conscious that children, especially these days, with the television set in the bedroom, and so on, have enormous experience of watching drama. But it's drama on a screen. It's drama that is distant from you because of that. You can turn it off, you can flick the channels, you can turn the sound off. You can ignore it, because it's sort of separate from you.
"The huge importance of live theatre is that you are in the same physical space as the actors. You can see the lights; the light that falls on them is reflected off them onto you - it's the same light. You're in the same physical space; you hear their voices and it's the real voice you hear. They go clumping over the stage, you hear it. All the physical stuff, this is what a lot of children are starved of. They're starved of a physical engagement with the world. So when children go into a real theatre and see real people doing dramatic things in front of them, there's an engagement with it that's almost visceral."
When the National asked to do His Dark Materials, what did you think?
"I was astonished. I was somewhere in Scotland, doing an almost never-ending book tour. My agent called and said that Nicholas Hytner was interested. I was absolutely thrilled, of course. Delighted. And simultaneously relieved that it wasn't me having to make it into a play. It was someone else."
Did you think they had an impossible task?
"No. I don't think anything is impossible in the theatre. A very difficult and big task, yes, because they had to rethink it in theatrical terms. It's much easier probably to make a novel into a film because both have the ability to move immediately, instantaneously, from a wide-angle shot to a close-up. Of course there ain't no close-ups in the theatre. It's got to be conceived differently from the start. The cinema can easily show a polar bear wearing armour, who can stand up and talk and manipulate machinery. And they can show witches flying through the air and balloons sailing across the Arctic skies, very very easily. To do those things in the theatre, you need to reconceive it in theatrical terms. It has to become metaphorical not literal, in a way."
Do you enjoy having your stories retold by other people?
"I'm fundamentally a storyteller, not a literary person, if I can make that distinction. I'm more interested in the events I'm talking about than in the fine prose in which I recount them. I'm all for fine prose. I try to make my own as euphonious and interesting as I can. But the 'making up' part is always closer to my heart than the 'writing down' part. If I wrote a story that had enough vigour and life in it to pass into a common currency and be recounted by people who had no idea that I was the author of it, nothing would give me more pleasure."
How does reading your stories in a book differ from following them on stage?
"When you are reading a book, you are in control of the speed you read at, and indeed, even the order in which you read it. You are in command. Another way in which you are in command is that you supply the pictures when reading, you have to, so you're contributing.
"When you're watching somebody acting it out, the visual stuff is done for you, you don't have to contribute that. And you are not in control of the time either. The play will start at eight o'clock whether or not you are in your seat, and you can't say, 'Stop! Stop! Slower! Slower! Do that bit again!' So you surrender a certain amount of control.
"But what you gain in exchange is the sense of a joint experience. You're experiencing it together with all these other people. When you're reading a book, you're alone, and there are great values in that. But when you're in a theatre, and something transforming occurs, enchantment settles over the whole audience. That's something which you can't get by yourself."
IN CONVERSATION WITH PLAYWRIGHT & ADAPTER NICHOLAS WRIGHT
Several of your plays have been done in the West End & in America, what future could you see for His Dark Materials?
"Usually, when you write a play, you hope it will get lots of productions or maybe transfer to the West End or go to America. Well, with this play, you can just forget all that. Because professionally, I would say, it's more or less completely tied to the National Theatre. There's no other theatre that could put on a production of this scale or has the stage that could take it. Except you could also do it with nothing at all. There's nothing to stop anybody doing it in the school hall. No problem at all. It's a great show for kids to produce. They can make their own daemons. They can do whatever they like."
What made you think the books might make a play?
"The whole aspect of Lyra's journey and her growing up, and the philosophical questions about death, responsibility, friendship, morality, God - all these things lend themselves enormously to a play for young people. I remember from my own childhood just how much those questions interested me. The last thing any of us wanted to lose from the show was that moral seriousness and questioning; that's what makes it not just the adventure of a little girl meeting lots of strange characters. It has to be a story that throws up the kind of serious questions that young people think about and really want to know about. The question everybody goes through, for example: if there's a God, why does he allow bad things to happen? Again that has to come up in the play. If God is a character in it, which he sort of is, you have to raise that question."
The above has been extracted from The Art of Darkness: Staging the Philip Pullman Trilogy (Oberon Books, £12.99) by Robert Butler. For further information, visit the Oberon website.
Nicholas Wright’s two-part adaptation of Pullman’s His Dark Materials continues at the NT Olivier until 27 March 2004. It will return to the repertory a the end of the year.