LONDON — Anna Maxwell Martin hasn’t had an easy time playing the lead role in “His Dark Materials,” the six-hour long stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s best-selling trilogy of children’s novels that’s playing a sold-out run at the Royal National Theatre through the end of March. That’s because the audience regularly groans — or erupts in fits of laughter — during her kissing scenes.
“The kids are disgusted when we kiss,” says Maxwell Martin, a Yorkshire native who has been winning rave reviews in her role as 12-year-old Lyra, a mischievous orphan who, with her alethiometer, an instrument that reveals the truth in all things, goes on a long and mysterious quest. “It throws me all the time — and I end up collapsing on the floor laughing. It’s deadly.”
Although she’s 25 years old and no longer ruffled by a kiss, Maxwell Martin counts herself among the millions of fans of Pullman’s trilogy: “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” During the auditions, director Nicholas Hytner asked her to read for Lyra, and she was offered the part the same day.
But she was initially hesitant to accept. “It was a very bizarre feeling. I was so passionate about the books, and had to think about whether I could do them justice. I wanted others to enjoy the story as much as I did,” she says during an interview between matinee and evening performances.
Since graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2001, Maxwell Martin has appeared mainly on stage. The Donmar Warehouse gave her a first break in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” Next came a lead role in “The Three Sisters” at the Royal National Theatre, and a bit part in Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours.” She will soon star in a film version of Ian McEwan’s novel “Enduring Love.”
The $1.5 million production of “His Dark Materials,” which, due to great demand, will be revived in November, takes place in parallel universes, and its themes include everything from coming of age, to good versus evil, to the price of innocence. Maxwell Martin’s Lyra is a suitably annoying pre-adolescent: She exaggerates everything, from her put-on Oxfordshire accent to her movements — and judging from the volume of applause, her tough little critics love it all.
But the age of the audience doesn’t affect what the actress takes from her performances. “I’ve just always liked to be the center of attention,” she says.
— Ellen Burney