On Directing Fantasy Drama


There’s a wonderful note in the back of our scripts which talks about the high budget National Theatre production of His Dark Materials, mentioning, among other things, their use of Oliver’s drum revolve. It then goes on to say – very cheerfully – that “the demands and abilities of this mighty piece of ‘70s technology are now inseparable from the script. But I like to think that the adaptation – though it was written for a theatre with vast resources – could have a different kind of life in productions that have no resources at all”.

The irony isn’t lost on us. There are some splendid stage directions saying things like “we cross-fade to Lord Asriel’s fortress”, or “Serafina appears”, which always cause a bit of amusement in the rehearsal room. Taking His Dark Materials: Part II from page to stage is more than a challenge. It’s a battle.

Design has been key to planning the production. Our set must work to create about six different worlds, which we flit wildly between, as the relentless pace of the play rushes on. The solution Abby Clarke (our set designer) and Kat Padel (lighting designer) came to was to create a highly stylised set, using Feigner’s artwork as inspiration. The anonymity of the sharp angular backdrop, which also flows into the furniture means that it works for all of the worlds, whilst also capturing the fractured nature of the world as the windows continue to slice through it, and dust is whisked away.

Another rather daunting task for anyone tackling fantasy drama is capturing the uniqueness of each magical creature. His Dark Materials has everything from angels to witches, with the odd armoured bear in between. We’ve worked heavily on physicality, developing a different style of movement for each species. The harpies have been particularly interesting, as we’ve worked with the idea that they torment their victims to fill a void within themselves, which is exposed physically in their stooped stature.

But what I believe is most important in approaching the fantasy genre is finding a hook which is inherently very human. Fantasy is one of the most freeing genres, it’s a place where almost anything is possible and ideas that could not be explored in any other way are divulged so wonderfully. But none of this matters if the audience cannot connect to the characters. We began the rehearsal process by looking at themes that connected everyone together: difficult choices, loyalty, challenging authority, and family relationships were all ideas we found within His Dark Materials. We then explored how these manifested in our own lives, and in doing so found a way into the play. Fantasy can help a story to soar, but only if it has its roots firmly in the ground.


His Dark Materials: Part II will be performed at the Keble O’Reilly from Wednesday 3rd – Saturday 6th June, at 7.30pm.

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