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There are very few books written for children that irritate me more than Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Why would I sit for six hours watching a dramatic adaptation of a series of books I hate?

There could only be one answer.

Puppets.

I love a good puppet.

The big hook of Pullman’s alternate world is that the soul of each character exists outside of their body as an animal.  These animals are supposed to reflect in some way the personality of the owner, and become set at the onset of puberty (when, naturally, the personality of any person is set forever).  The sexuality of characters is also set at this stage – with an animal ‘settling’ to be of the opposite sex for heterosexual people, and one of the same sex for homosexual people (although no major or even minor character described in this world is homosexual – they are mentioned briefly as some sort of very rare anomaly).

While these soul animals are the cause of most of my anger towards the books, they also require creative staging.  Puppets.  In this production designed by the Blind Summit puppet company.  They were great.

The play, performed in two parts of almost three hours each, was first performed at the National Theatre in 2004.  Nicholas Wright (author of the libretto to The Little Prince and Man on the Moon as well as several episodes of the recent BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency)  adapted the play from the books.  This revival was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company with the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

For those unfamiliar with the novels, Pullman is rewriting Paradise Lost for atheist children.  I really like Milton.  Pullman is no Milton.  In his alternate world scientific development has proceeded along a different route and steam power and Zeppelins stand in for electricity and cars.  Lyra, a feisty orphaned girl living under the guardianship of an Oxford college, goes on a magical adventure – discovering not only the deepest secrets of the world, but also the deepest secrets of her own soul. Well…

Pullman intends to use His Dark Materials as a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis for not letting Susan back into Narnia after she discovers boys and lipstick and silk stockings.  But rather than let Susan back into Narnia, Pullman seems to think that Susan’s lipstick alone can save the world.

Lyra kisses and lies down with her boyfriend, unleashing magic dust that somehow fixes everything.  Not that she knows that her sexual awakening will save the world.  Agency is overrated.  The witches who watch over her progress know that a prophecy has named her as a new Eve, but don’t feel the need to tell her.  Why have a female protagonist valued for her thoughts and abilities when you can put pervy overemphasis on her sexuality at twelve?

I don’t have a problem with children of twelve kissing, in life or in fiction, but beyond the strangeness of a plot relying on the kiss of a child to correct the flow of magic dust (really), her male companion Will gets to save the world with a magic knife.  His side of the kiss isn’t of the slightest importance.  Why would it matter when you have a phallic power prop to rule the universe with?

The way the animal souls (called daemons) function is also just rather comical. People can not generally be separated from their daemons by any great distance. Some people’s daemons settle as sea creatures, confining the owner to a boat for the rest of their lives. One wonders if a person with an elephant or horse daemon would ever be able to socialise indoors or take an elevator again.

The animals don’t really do anything but make occasional wise cracks. And make out with each other. There is a rather disturbing scene when the two characters revealed to be Lyra’s secret parents kiss and their puppet souls kiss along beside them (a snow leopard and a golden monkey).

The play sets seething sexuality against a repressive church, an organisation which has begun to quite literally cut children in two to preserve their innocence. I’m quite happy to be on the atheist bandwagon, but this analogy seems a bit of a stretch.

This production was interesting, but I (obviously) find the content irritating.  See it if you like lectures about why religion is bad. Or if you just want to see a monkey try to seduce a gecko.

His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman, adapted by Nicholas Wright.

Festival Theatre Edinburgh.
22/05/09

Touring May 28th to the the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

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Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, like Doctor Atomic, examines the personal and political events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb during the second world war.

The play dramatises various possible conversations that could have occurred when Niels Bohr visited Werner Heisenberg in German occupied Copenhagen in 1941.  The structure of the play is not linear – it revises and re-imagines events, attempting to mirror principles of quantum mechanics in dramatic form: complementarity and uncertainty.  Aside from the politics and physics, Frayn’s play is a quite moving exploration of the changing relationship between  mentor and pupil over time.

It is an incredibly interesting piece of drama – the only real downfall being the (perhaps necessary) simplification of the scientific issues.  The way that the physics is discussed is not the way that two of the brightest physicists of the twentieth century would have talked to one another.  It breaks the illusion.  And as with many plays dealing with this time, an irritating female character is used as a device to explain events to the plebs in the audience, and occasionally gasp ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?‘ (in this case, Heisenberg’s wife Margrethe).

This production was directed by Tony Cownie and designed by Neil Murray.  Compared to the average play Copenhagen allows some scope for interpretation – it is written without any stage directions and only requires set peices to describe the Heisenberg’s house and garden.  At the Lyceum the walls, floor and a few vertical poles were covered with oversized handwriting, with a few chairs and piles of paper for props – placing the events clearly in a world of ideas and recolection.   The production was really very good – if you ignored the moment just before the curtain call when a ridiculous projection of the earth spinning suddenly appeared.  I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen.

Copenhagen
By Michael Frayn

Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
09/05/09

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Godot

More odd celebrity sightings. I stopped by King’s Theatre to return a couple of extra tickets I had enthusiastically snapped up when the tour of Waiting for Godot was announced last year. There was a huge queue of people waiting for return tickets for that night’s performance, and as the box office hadn’t yet opened I stood in the line and had a chat with an interesting man in a large hat and two drama students who had travelled up from London for the chance to see Sir Ian on stage. Waiting there in the line I was suddenly whacked in the leg as a man with long white hair, wearing oversized tracksuit pants tucked into his socks and a hairy camel overcoat pushed by.

He was carrying a bright orange Sainsbury’s bag containing a few pointy objects. A few professional autograph hunters crowded around him. I gather Sir Ian was doing the prop run, picking up turnips for that night, and saw his opportunity to take revenge on behalf of British celebrities everywhere.

It was great seeing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Godot. It’s easy to forget when reading Beckett that his plays are not just depressing post-apocalyptic commentaries, but often very funny too. However, the highlight of the performance for me was Lucky’s monologue near the end of Act 1:

…I resume the skull to shrink and wast and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara…

Having recently read quite a bit of Beckett, including the soul destroying trilogy Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnamable, for me this monologue really evokes the sort of gut wrenching panic that hides just under the surface in Beckett’s prose and drama.

Lucky was played brilliantly by Ronald Pickup – from his biography it seems he’s been in every play performed in Britain in the past forty years, but most recognisably for people of my generation, he is the voice of this guy:

Roar!

Roar!

Aslan in the BBC adaptation of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe! (As I child I was convinced that they had trained up a real lion for that show, and am now devastated at how obviously it is a puppet.) Simon Callow, who plays Pozzo, has also had a very interesting career, rising from a box office job to stage (as the front end of a stage horse) to the west end, to director and critic.

Sometimes it is difficult to fully enjoy something with such famous actors so aggressively promoted, but this Godot is certainly worth the hype.

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett

King’s Theatre Edinburgh
18 /04/2009

Unusually, this production has toured prior to its London run – it is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
See http://www.waitingforgodottheplay.com

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