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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.
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.
Touring May 28th to the the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
“There really aren’t any plaques around for these things. If you were gonna put a plaque up everywhere in Edinburgh Rabbie Burns got drunk you’d need five thousand of them, and there ain’t anyone’s got that kinda money.”
On Saturday I went with a group of students from my residence on a literary pub crawl around Edinburgh. The tour was led by Allan Foster, the author of The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh and The Literary Traveller in Scotland. He greeted us on the Royal Mile, then took us to a tiny pub called The Royal Oak often frequented by Ian Rankin, author the hugely popular Inspector Rebus novels. If this little pub had been completely empty when we got there we still probably wouldn’t have all fit in.
The locals responded with slightly hostile bewilderment when thirty students came to loiter in the doorway and take turns to shuffle to the bar to buy a pint. “What? Did you all just get off a bus or somthin’?”
First stop after The Royal Oak was the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where Arthur Conan Doyle studied with Doctor Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Right behind that is a building where Charles Darwin studied, which is right next to the private medical school where Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims for dissection (the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatchers), the same building that Stevenson visited to see a friend recovering from a leg amputation. A man who became the inspiration for Long John Silver, probably the world’s most famous fictional pirate.
Then we headed over to a pub called The Maltings, previously frequented by a Scots language poetry collective. Inside we found Ian Rankin. Unsurprisingly Rankin didn’t introduce himself to our gaggle of literary tourists, but stayed hunched over the bar with two wizened looking men who looked like they could have easily been the inspiration for the cranky, drunken detectives from his books. He didn’t participate in the Hens’ night karaoke either.
We then ambled through George Square, the heart of the University of Edinburgh’s main campus, where Sir Walter Scott lived and Alexander McCall Smith was first published. We heard stories about J.K. Rowling, J.M. Barrie and the world’s favourite bad poet William McGonagall.
The tour was great fun. I really couldn’t be studying English Literature any place better than Edinburgh.
He claimed with dreary pride, ‘I suppose I’m real Brighton’, as if his single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coition.
Graham Green’s gang-war novel, Brighton Rock, gives you a slightly different view of Brighton to the Royal Pavilion. A hundred years after George the paint is still cracking, the dirty weekends away still dirty, but Green’s anti-hero Pinkie can’t rely on a Royal edict to sort out his problems.
The novel begins as Pinkie kills a man by choking him with a stick of Brighton rock candy, and follows his increasingly desperate attempts to take out the witnesses. Steadfast in his Catholic faith but resigned to eternal damnation, Pinkie takes the reader on a tour of Brighton’s underbelly in the 1930’s.
While I enjoyed Brighton Rock, some aspects of the narrative are a little trying. All female characters fall into two types: either bony, timid and manipulative or buxom, bawdy and motherly. Both types are viewed by Pinkie with barely contained disgust. It reflects the main character’s fear of women well, but was a bit difficult for me to read at times.
The novel has some really nice poetic parts, like when he’s trying to trick his wife into killing herself in a fake suicide pact: “He put out his mouth and kissed her on the cheek; he was afraid of the mouth – thoughts travel too easily from lip to lip.”
Green divided his novels up into ‘serious’ works and ‘amusements’. Brighton Rock was one of his serious novels. To me it read more like a good tawdry thriller, but I can imagine that for others the story of tested faith in Godless times might be quite moving.
I was interested to read that Graham Green is related to Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson is everywhere.