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La bible

The week in theatre: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage; Life of Pi; Measure for Measure

Theatre

Bridge; Wyndham’s; Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
The familiar and the fantastic are as one in the Bridge’s Philip Pullman spectacular; more puppet magic powers Life of Pi; and a coolly convincing 70s Measure for Measure

Is Bryony Lavery Philip Pullman’s daemon? Her adaptation of La Belle Sauvage goes to the heart of the first volume of Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy and, daemon-like, expresses its essence. Clear and swift, it brings an extra bounce of humour to the tangle of speculation and saltiness that makes the novel at once provoking and compelling. “How do you know about the uncertainty principle?” “I live in a pub.”

This is only one of the ways in which Nicholas Hytner’s exciting production (co-directed with Emily Burns and James Cousins) gets things right. Pullman’s novel, set before His Dark Materials, with Lyra as a baby being protected by potboy and potgirl Malcolm and Alice, swims between the familiar and the fantastic: it is a rush of climate catastrophe, adventure, alethiometers, Oxford cityscapes, pubescent stirrings and the repressions imposed by an ironclad Christian regime. Its layers, and its twisting between the antique and the futuristic, are suggested here in Paul Arditti’s delicately thrumming sound design and by Luke Halls’s videos and Jon Clark’s lighting, which swirl over and transform Bob Crowley’s sets: placid-looking woodcut scenery seems to splinter and break apart as a great flood (the Bible is never far from Pullman’s agnostic mind) rushes across the stage.

Among the speed there is inwardness. The crucial daemons, designed and directed by Barnaby Dixon, are more intimate than spectacular: a lemur coiled round a neck, a snake uncurling across the stage, our hero’s companion shifting (how?) from kingfisher to cat in full view of the audience. Mostly white and mostly small – those belonging to nuns can perch in their wimples – they light up the stage like paper lanterns, though the villain’s nasty snickering hyena flaps on huge and unhinged, like a half-finished craft project.

It is an evening of uniformly strong performances. Ella Dacres is bewitching as Alice, graceful, cross and capable. The baddies are persuasively seductive: Ayesha Dharker silky and insinuating – in stilettos that are beginning to look like a shorthand for villainess – and Pip Carter nonchalantly predatory. Crucially, Samuel Creasey makes an astonishing stage debut as the teenage hero: clever and awkward, blurting out his knowledge like a policeman issuing cautions; uningratiating but finally disarming. He is completely truthful: the acting discovery of the year.

Days before La Belle Sauvage opened, another puppet-friendly, theologically driven stage adaptation finally reached London. Lolita Chakrabarti’s version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, first seen in Sheffield in 2019, had its southward journey delayed by Covid. Now the stalls of Wyndham’s have been especially reconfigured to hold Max Webster’s fine production.

Barack Obama congratulated Martel on producing “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. The Canadian writer’s tale of life cast away at sea – with beasts and harsh conditions – may be read as fable or fantasy or derring-do tale, but certainly as a celebration of vitality.

Early – on both page and stage – is a warning against being sentimental about animals. Stop as soon as you want to cuddle or pat is the message taught to the small boy hero by his zookeeper father, who feeds a much-loved small goat to a Bengal tiger whose name is Richard Parker. The instruction is too spelled out in some clumsy dialogue, but is given force in the puppet animals. These are the marvellous motor of the evening, from the moment Tim Hatley’s plain, bleached set breaks open to show a giraffe rubbernecking through the window of a hospital ward.

‘Quick-eyed, quick-limbed’ Hiran Abeysekera and tiger in Life of Pi. Photograph: Johan Persson

These creatures – designed by Finn Caldwell with Nick Barnes – have rough edges, an almost provisional look, as if made from driftwood, while seeming infinitely elastic; Caldwell is also the movement director. Manipulated onstage by puppeteers, they move rapidly and fluidly, yet have no soft edges. They are not pets. That adored goat – called Buckingham – is bristling and sprightly; the mighty tiger who kills him ripples along with utter smoothness – somehow conveying an exceptional silence – yet you see also the angular planes of his shoulder blades as he prowls. There is no sweetness, simply accuracy, in the way a rat scuds across a boat and a turtle claws through the waves with cumbersomely arranged limbs.

Hiran Abeysekera is the hero and the heart of the action. Quick-eyed, quick-limbed, quick-voiced, he fulfils all the promise he showed in Peter Brook’s The Prisoner three years ago. He is Pi squared.

Ishia Bennison (Escalus) and Ashley Zhangazha (Angelo) in Measure for Measure. Photograph: Helen Murray

Measure for Measure is a continually startling Shakespeare offering: a play that sends you scurrying to the text to see if a director has added something to underline contemporary relevance. The central encounter – in which Angelo, a temporary ruler and a man of apparently impeccable rectitude, tries to blackmail the novitiate Isabella into bed – has always produced shudders; in a post #MeToo audience it draws gasps: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?” Yet at the opening of Blanche McIntyre’s stimulating production, the focus of recognition had shifted again. Angelo has just introduced draconian measures to enforce chastity on his fellow citizens. One rule for him, one for the rest of the country. A disturbing sense of familiarity crept over the stalls.

McIntyre has set the play in 1975, regarding this as a time of both social dishevelment and a residual Christian ethos. It’s a switch that gives the evening a cool conviction. The central exchange between Georgia Landers’s full-throated Isabella and Ashley Zhangazha’s laxly entitled Angelo is strong. Unusual doublings-up emphasise the play’s dual morality: Ishia Bennison snarls as a convict and is authoritative as an official. The musical-voiced Eloise Secker is a cool pimp – smoking, handing out her calling card to an audience member – but also plays two of the women who are themselves in effect pimped. Most strikingly, Hattie Ladbury plays the Duke, ambiguous in every way: got up in a headscarf and trenchcoat like a Sloane, but blending easily into her disguise as a priest; commanding, clarion-voiced yet self-doubting. She glides quizzically through a play that begins to look like the Duke’s Dilemma: how did things come to be so unravelled?

It is easy to think of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as a kind of pomander theatre, sticking any play with its spicy fragrance. In no other space is an audience so warmly enclosed, more swiftly charmed – and as a result more quickly alarmed. In McIntyre’s hands it becomes something different: a structural device rather than an atmospheric enclosure. A working machine. The Duke climbs to the gallery to hide while observing the action beneath. Candelabras are lowered to wrap around a speaker during a soliloquy. Oh – and it’s the 70s: the lighting goes off to signal power cuts.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage ★★★★
Life of Pi ★★★★
Measure for Measure ★★★★

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