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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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