The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

Just because you’re fat doesn’t mean you need to be the clown. I’m fat myself, and I understand about clowning around. I do appreciate when fat actors are cast. They are actors, after all. But in this National Theatre ‘mould’ of colour blindness, where black and white actors are cast ‘without thought’ as to the colour of their skin; why treat the [token] fat actor – the main actor – as though he needs to be a clown, when the character in the book is anything but?

Right, I shall get off that high horse for a bit now, because La Belle Sauvage, based on Philip Pullman’s novel, was quite a good play. After years in the wilderness of Scotland, followed by two years of lockdown, it was lovely to be in a London theatre again, even if it was for the filmed version of a National Theatre production, screened in our local theatre. Drama like that is different from film, and we must remember to do it again, now that the post-Covid reluctance of getting close to strangers is very slightly wearing off. (Next time we’ll pay for the seat next to us.)

Clowns, yeah. Philip’s book is not a funny book. Nor is it especially suited for children. Yet, there we were with Malcolm acting the idiot, and with children in the audience who presumably had not read La Belle Sauvage (nor had their parents), but perhaps had liked His Dark Materials. I see why the part of 12-year-old Malcolm had to be played by an adult. But this shy and intelligent and thoughtful boy has no business behaving like a junior James Cordern. Having started off like this, he can’t really go on to be the Malcolm from the next book, should they dramatise that as well.

The other parts mostly worked. And the sharing of roles within the fairly small cast worked fine. The actor playing Lord Asriel was perfect for the part. A pity the end had him act like an idiot. It was like Malcolm’s stupidity, there for cheap laughs. Not everything has to be funny; not even ‘a children’s play’ if that’s what it was.

The filmed interviews with the people behind the dramatisation were interesting. I’m glad Bryony Lavery, who adapted the novel for the stage knew the book well enough to know what an important task she’d been given. Her work on shortening this long novel into two hours on the stage was a lesson in what you can do. Having Nicholas Hytner direct was, as she said, a very useful thing.

The way they used modern tech to suggest a flood on stage was very clever. Apart from the odd table, I’d say that the stage was mostly empty of props. It worked extremely well.

And baby Lyra! Apparently they have five babies in rotation, actually on stage, playing the young Lyra. Although it seems that for the oven scene, there was not a real baby in the oven…

Setting aside the issue of fat equals funny, and of this being less Pullman’s book than we’d hoped, it’s good drama. We need more like this.

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