Tickets were as hard to come by as gold dust when the National first premiered its spectacular two-part theatrical adaptation of His Dark Materials last Christmas, and that’s going to be the case all over again as it returns there this year. So while dust, in Philip Pullman’s parlance here, is a manifestation of original sin, you may well have to commit one to get a ticket.

If you manage to do so, you’ll also discover some of the secrets of the parallel universes that it takes you to, as well as wrestle with some profound theological and spiritual questions to do with our casting out of paradise, notions of finding heaven wherever we are, and facing up to death.

All of this and a lot more is wrapped up in Nicholas Wright’s amazingly skilful and propulsive dovetailing of the three novels that comprise Pullman’s tale into a series of physical and spiritual theatrical adventures. The big quests are matched by bigger questions that raise the stakes for audiences of all ages, and Nicholas Hytner (newly joined by Matt Wilde as co-director) sends this epic narrative on its way with even more confidence than before.

Last time around, the big question was whether the story could be realised theatrically at all. Now that there’s no doubt that it can, the creative team (and a mostly all-new cast) are freshly invigorated to make its dense, intensely layered storytelling simultaneously both emotionally darker and dramatically clearer.

As it follows two 12-year-olds, Lyra and Will (Elaine Symons and Michael Legge, equally as convincing as their amazing predecessors Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper), from separate universes who are both looking for their absent parents and find each other along the way, a play of love and loss, prophecy and superstition is magnificently played out.

While Michael Curry’s puppets (of ‘daemons’ that accompany the characters, rebellious angels and armoured bears) are once again a breathtaking, superbly manipulated wonder, a massive ensemble cast also fully inhabit this alternately familiar and alien landscape.

Among them, there are outstanding contributions from David Harewood’s muscular adventurer Lord Asriel, the sinisterly poised Lesley Manville as Mrs Coulter, John Carlisle (recreating his performance from last year) as the colluding Lord Boreal, and Adjoa Andoh as the Queen of the Lapland Witches.

- Mark Shenton


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from January 2004 and this production’s original run at the Nationa.

"Exit pursued by a bear" is often cited as the theatre's most difficult-to-realise stage direction (Act 3, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale). But it's nothing next to the infinite demands of adapting Philip Pullman's massive cult novels, His Dark Materials, for the stage.

This dramatisation must summon and realise entire parallel universes to our own, show the cutting of holes that allow passage between them, not to mention bring into being the "daemons" that accompany each character, a set of rebellious angels, and a whole army of armoured polar bears.

Director Nicholas Hytner is no stranger to ambition or daring - he's previously overseen the landing of a helicopter on stage in Miss Saigon, the spinning of a fairground carousel in the opening minutes of Carousel, and here on the same Olivier stage, the subterranean universe of The Wind in the Willows. Once again pressing the incredible drum revolve of the Olivier into hyper-active service, Hytner and his resourceful designer Giles Cadle restlessly and relentlessly propel the dense action of this fantastical story forward, yet never swamping the human dimensions that allow us entry to it.

Told, in Nicholas Wright's two-part adaptation, as a memory play of myth and mystery, it begins and ends on a bench in the shadow of an apple tree, where we meet Lyra (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Will (Dominic Cooper), sitting together but somehow apart. Like Wendy and Peter Pan, they will go on a journey together; but will eventually be separated, too, not by Peter's refusal to grow up, but by the necessity for Will and Lyra to both do so. Not simply a tale of maturing, there's also ample focus on exploration and parenting, the conflicts of church and state, environmental damage, weapons of mass destruction, and the claims of prophesy.

In other words, His Dark Materials is a very modern story set within a mythical context. And, as Hytner did in his opening production of Henry V at this address, the contemporary resonance is boldly stated. Note, for example, the speech delivered by the President: "The world is facing two great crises. To begin with the one you know of: war is inevitable. Lord Asriel is building a fortress. He is developing weapons of new and awesome potential. Rebel angels are flocking to him in their thousands." This could be Bush talking about Saddam this time last year.

However, both the story and production have a wider purchase on our imaginations. As stunningly supported by the puppets of Michael Curry (a principal collaborator of Julie Taymor's in realising those in The Lion King), there's the rich psychological world of the 'daemons' - physical manifestations of the human soul that take the shapes of spiders, monkeys, lizards, snakes and other animals - that guide each character.

A superb ensemble company bring all of this to magical life, including former 007 actor Timothy Dalton as the swashbuckling adventurer Lord Asriel; Patricia Hodge as the sinister mother figure of Mrs Coulter; and Niamh Cusack as the Queen of the Lapland Witches.

- Mark Shenton