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Dæmons in His Dark Materials pt. III

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

You can find Part I of this series here

and Part II here

Dæmons at the National Theatre

In 2000 Nicholas Hytner took over Artistic Directorship of the National Theatre in London and immediately began planning to put together a stage production to attract in younger theatre-goers that represented a modern equivalent to classics like Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows.

He swiftly settled on His Dark Materials as the text for the job. Nicholas Wright was engaged to write the script, Hytner took on the role of director himself, and in 2003 the production debuted on the multi-faceted Swiss-army-rubiks-Cube that is the Olivier stage of the National Theatre.

I was nineteen, in my first year at university at King's College London, right next door to the National, and having been thoroughly devoted to His Dark Materials since I first read Northern Lights seven years before, was giddy with excitement to see the name flashing across the National's LED board as I crossed Waterloo Bridge to college. I queued twice from 6am to get day tickets which were £10 and therefore wonderfully available to the penurious but dogged student.

On the face of it, His Dark Materials was a surprising choice for the stage, a world-hopping, lengthy, high-fantasy epic resting on the shoulders of child protagonists. But Hytner wanted to stretch the legs of the Olivier stage and show off its capabilities, and His Dark Materials had both enough popular appeal as a 'crossover' hit, as well as the acclaim and respect from the intelligentsia, to be the right fit.

And it was not just the marketing and demographics that made sense: it was the writing.

Pullman's cut his teeth as a writer when working as a Middle School teacher creating plays for his classes to perform. Some of these school plays he later reworked into short novels of the kind he calls his ‘fairy tales’ (e.g. Count Karlestein and The Firework Maker's Daughter).

He has written passionately on the value and importance of the theatre to the development of children:

"The experience of being in the audience when a play or an opera is being performed is not simply passive. It's not like watching TV; it's not even like going to the cinema. Everyone in that big space is alive, and everyone is focused on one central activity. And everyone contributes. The actors and singers and musicians contribute their performance; the audience contribute their attention, their silence, their laughter, their applause, their respect." (Theatre - the true key stage by Philip Pullman for The Guardian)

His early experience of writing plays and this continued interest in the power of theatre, especially its particular way of interacting with its audience, can be seen in how he writes as a novelist. As I covered in more detail in Part I, Pullman has exactly the above-descibed approach to writing, using carefully chosen and exact details to guide the workhorse of the reader’s imagination where he wants it to go. A novelist, like a modern filmmaker with a CGI budget, has the freedom to be as exacting as he or she wants. But Pullman knows the greater power that lies in suggestion, perhaps because of this early training in marrying a vivid imagination to a presumably non-existent school theatre budget.

Hytner and Wright decided to adapt the full story of His Dark Materials but to divide and weight it a little differently from how it spreads across the books. Rather than the three parts of the trilogy, for the stage the story is split into two parts: two discrete plays make up the full production of His Dark Materials, usually with the first play staged in the morning and the second later that afternoon/evening. The material plays out in much the same chronology but unlike the book, the play dives from the beginning into the various subplots rather than sticking so closely by Lyra's side.

For this, Hytner and Wright took full advantage of the ability of the Oliver stage to transform itself and reveal fully-set-up scenes with almost the ease of a film's cutting This was cinematic theatre.

Nicholas Wright always intended his play should be adaptable for all sorts of other scales of production and indeed in the years since the National's productions His Dark Materials has been taken on by schools and youth theatre groups as well as major professional stages. But at the same time he knew he was writing in the immediate for a pretty unique stage and budget. He and Hytner had the most expensive and inventive in stagecraft available to them, but also a daunting amount of high fantasy to cover with it. The Drum Revolve mechanism at the centre of the Olivier might help with the need to dash back and forth between subplots and worlds. But another huge challenge lay in the characters, which included creatures and types of person straight from the imagination - armoured bears, Gallivespians, harpies, ghosts, and of course, dæmons.

Where to look for classy stagecraft ways to create animalistic fantasy?

The Lion King on the West End and His Dark Materials from the Birmingham Rep's 2009 production

At the time Hytner was first setting his sights on His Dark Materials, the stage-musical adaptation of Disney's The Lion King was a recent West End smash hit, having come to London in 1999 to expand upon its Broadway success. Presented with the challenge of adapting Pullman's inventions one of the very earliest decisions Hytner made was to use puppetry. Indeed to specifically turn to the same team that had designed and created the animals of The Lion King, Michael and Jeff Curry.

The shared lineage of the creatures of Broadway's The Lion King and the National's His Dark Materials is clear: both shows featured (or feature - The Lion King is of course still running) non-literalist constructions that are half-puppet, half-costume, the puppeteer or actors not hidden but always a visible component of the performance.

These were costumes, it was clear, designed with the stage equivalent of that Pullman advice in mind: “don’t make a metaphor do the work of a fact”.

The bears of His Dark Materials had heads of paper-lantern-like construction held aloft and manipulated with one hand, and connected at the back to a spine of flexible pipe that suggested a back before coming round to the side to become a sweeping clawed arm, which the actor controlled with their other hand. The acting was visible but integrated into the movement and shape of the creatures.

That approach was quite like the approach The Lion King had taken to its lion characters - and that made a lot of sense for the bears. Both sets of characters needed to convey a similar sense. That these were both animal-shaped characters and at the same time people. The staging works to balance a costume/prop which is to some extent transformative with making the central human performance, the central person-ness, remain visible. Bears are supposed to be read as different from, but equivalent and equal to, the human characters.

Michael Legge as Will and Alistair Petrie as Iorek in the 2004 National Theatre revivial of the play

But the dæmons presented a different challenge. As a device, they are not human-equivalents, not a kind of person, but they are not animals either. They are something with a human intelligence and personality and meaning. They are to appear besides people, adjuncts to their humanity.

In The Lion King the non-starring, more animalistic animals are more at the puppet end of the spectrum, operated by performers whose matching body-paint and dancer movements don't draw attention to the humanity with the performance like those of the lion-actors. These creatures are archetypal where the central lion characters play down the animalism and up the humanity.

But that's not right for dæmons either: they are too literally animal, too devoid of expressive human personality and meaning. The designers and director had to come up with a different approach for dæmons than anything that they'd quite explored in The Lion King.

Puppet creator Jeff Curry said of his attitude to the challenge,

“… that the idea was that all the dæmons had characteristics in common. They hadn’t wanted the puppets to represent live animals, or to be fully fleshed-out, they wanted them to look as if they came from a spirit world.” (The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, 2003)

The puppets, then, which they arrived at guided by this thinking, looked like this:

Butler, charting the development of the production, describes the dæmon-puppets:

“The surface of each creature’s face and body was translucent. A fabric had been stretched and moulded over wires to give shape to the ridges, hollows and planes around the eye-sockets, cheeks and jaw lines. The wire outlines made the creatures light and airy. The fabric itself was painted in muted browns, greens, oranges and yellows – crisp autumn colours. These were ghostly creatures with friendly faces. They didn’t look like Disney characters” (The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, 2003)

Like the bears' faces, what these dæmon-puppets recalled most were paper lanterns of the sort seen at parades (particularly festivals of light, e.g. Burning The Clocks in Brighton).

The construction principles used for the stage are the same, only with hardier materials like metal and fabric instead of withie and tissue paper. And these dæmon puppets were, in fact, literal lanterns. They had small bulbs fixed within their interiors. The puppeteer-actor held the battery pack in his or her hand and could switch the light off as the dæmon exited a scene or when the dæmon died. Between this and the stage lighting, the translucent hides of dæmons gave them an ethereal quality.

They were also half-there physically. Kaisa was all neck and transluscent wings, the golden monkey just a head and long grasping arms, Stelmaria’s head and back are there, but her flanks and legs are suggested only by drapery.

Timothy Dalton, playing Lord Asriel, said,

“It struck me right at the beginning of rehearsals that here you are looking at a bit of bent wire and curtain material, and you invest it with personality, you feel for it, because it has a story.” (The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, 2003)

So... did that work?

“The idea of using puppets as daemons may seem well suited to the stage. In performance, however, the puppet-daemons lack metaphorical resonance... In the National Theatre productions, the puppets were unsatisfactory in many ways; especially in Part I where, for instance, the Master of Jordan College’s daemon is a stuffed bird tacked onto his shoulder. Since he is not a desiccated scholar but a moral and responsible man who loses his life through his efforts to protect and empower Lyra, there is nothing appropriate in the symbolism, if this is what it was meant to be. Puppets were never going to be able to effect the instantaneous transformations that delighted and spoke to readers on the page, and arguably alternative ways, including a variety of approaches to rendering daemons, could have been employed." (All Plot and No Passion? Adapting His Dark Materials for The Stage by Kimberly Reynolds professor of Children’s Literature at the University of Newcastle)

It's impossible to refute Reynold's view, though I ultimately disagree with her conclusion that the National Theatre's dæmons "lack metaphorical resonance"

With regard to the points about the Master’s dæmon, I have stressed repeatedly that form and function are tied up. One cannot dismiss failures of execution; they might be a failure of conceit.

And while I remember the dæmons operating well as a piece of stagecraft – Pantalaimon, Kaisa, Stelmaria and the golden monkey felt like real characters with their own life and volition, not mere objects that were being waved around – perhaps I also remember being more interested in and impressed by the visible cleverness of it than really drawn into dæmons and their relationships to their humans than is truly necessary for any good version of the Northern Lights part of the story at least.

I am particularly interested though in Reynold’s disappointment in the presentation of the transformative aspect of (children’s) dæmons because there I do differ. Where Reynolds sees the puppet device as letting down a fundamental part of the source materials’ concept, I think this is an area in which Hytner and crew demonstrate an adaptive imagination and intelligence missing from the ploddingly faithful visions of the screen.

Pantalaimon's puppets

Of the various puppets used to depict Pantalaimon in varying forms, the pine marten and wildcat puppets were most frequently in play. The pine marten was a kind of default - big enough to read on stage to an audience and embody a personality, of a huggable, holdable size, and perhaps crucially not immedtiately identifiable as one species or another. The form was officially 'pine marten' but really no one would guess that without foreknowledge of the form's significance. He was an almost generic mid-sized mammal, roundish, longish and with a face somewhere between canine and feline.

Where other forms were used it seemed generally tied to a specific purpose. As in the book, Pantalaimon favours a wildcat form for fighting. And the mouse puppet would come into play when Pantalaimon needed to disappear from the stage. Lyra's actor would tuck the mouse-puppet dæmon away safely in her pocket and his puppeteer (more on which below) would stay off-stage.

There's sadly little documentation online of the productions, so I am relying somewhat on my memory of a play I saw sixteen years ago but I believe the number of forms in which Pantalaimon appeared was not huge and the number of on-stage 'transformations' was smaller still. These the play managed by careful staging and sleight-of-hand to swap puppets in and out. It wasn't supposed to be invisible or seamless as an effect, just as the puppeteers themselves weren't, but to communicate the idea of transformation clearly to the audience.

The script book seems to back up my memory that there were a few 'transformation' moments concentrated near the beginning of the play/s and that after that, on the whole, the play relied on having sold the idea of transformation and mostly swapped puppets in and out off-stage.

That was certainly a wise choice because His Dark Materials is a busy - almost frantic - six hours of stage-time. Hytner and Wright are well aware that however clever the stage-craft is, it still requires processing by the audience, that 'contribution of attention' that Pullman talks about. And so the device is well-established and then tidied away to less conspicuous form.

It is this understanding of the inseparability of story and storytelling device that I most respect about the stage adaptation and most miss in the screen adaptations.

All this description is a long way of saying that in adapting Pullman's quick, frequent transformations of the page, the show could be seen, like Kimberly Reynolds says, as falling woefully short at bringing something key to life.

The ability of child dæmons to transform while adult dæmons cannot couldn't be more central to the story of at least Northern Lights; it is in fact the idea that Pullman describes as the most exciting in his writing life, realising he'd hit upon a theme or metaphor he found profoundly interesting and important in the difference between childhood innocence and adult experience.

But differing from Reynolds, I would argue that rather than drop the ball on this most central of devices, the the play in fact intelligently and successfully adapted the page metaphor into something that worked as well within its own system.

The puppet approach to mutability

I recently, and with excellent timing, read a lovely and wise piece on the great The Muppet Christmas Carol and why the author, Ethan Warren, considers it not just the best but the most triumphantly accurate to the soul and voice of Dickens' story. In it Warren notes how Dickens, especially as a writer operating before cinema had arrived to influence all of our storytelling imaginations towards the filmic, described the three spirits of A Christmas Carol, in terms that the many visual adaptors have struggled to embody.

" (Quoting from A Christmas Carol's description of the Ghost of Christmas Past ) The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body. And good luck trying to depict that monstrosity on screen, which probably explains why few adaptors have ever tried. The 1971 cartoon devoted to recreating Leech’s aesthetic ran with the common understanding that Dickens meant to evoke a candle without actually calling the spirit a candle; even in that case the “fluctuations” mainly come across as the spirit seeming to go in and out of focus. It’s easy enough to depict a spirit that looks like “a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.” But once you try to simultaneously show it as “a pair of legs without a head,” you’re liable to lose a significant segment of your audience, so adaptors tend to focus on the first part and ignore the second." (A Grand Yuletide Theory: The Muppet Christmas Carol is the Best Adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Ethan Warren)

Like Pullman, Dickens employs transformation naturally in prose in a way that a visual medium could never directly capture. They employ trasnformation to almost opposite ends: Dickens is evoking the uncanny and spiritual, Pullman in his handling of dæmons seeks to normalise. They both point us in the direction they'd like us to take things then as our imaginations to do work that they could never do for us as effectively.

And as I described before, Pullman reinforces that in the early pages by especially untangling Pantalaimon's presence from his physical form. He discourages us from placing our sense of Pantalaimon as a character too much in his physical/visual manifestation by starting him and keeping him for a long time in a form which doesn't invite anthropomorphication at all.

In the language-based medium of a book Pantalaimon is primarily represented by his written name not a visual. He may be mentioned in a scene without the reader even being told at first, or at all, what he currently looks like, and we don't struggle to imagine the story without the detail any more than we struggle to imagine Lyra without any physical description.

The reader's imagination is free to be only selectively visual. The mind's eye may exist in flux without the resolution into a specific synthesis. But the visual adaptation must commit to something specific. As Warren notes, A Christmas Carol has had many an adaptation that mistakes the mind's eye and the literal eye for the same thing; that imagines the best way to capture the sense that the novel evokes is to try and get onto screen what the filmmaker sees in their own mind when they read these descriptions.

I would argue it's a mistake of a similar kind to imagine that just because Pullman's visual and physical description of dæmons seems clear and consistent enough at a glance that the best approach is seeking to follow that for actual visuals. Again, book visuals and screen visuals and stage visuals are not the same thing.

It is wiser to try and understand the underlying feeling that the source material's author was trying to convey, and work out what one's own medium's toolkit might do to best achieve the same ends. Form and content are not separate. Events and images are often dependent on the form they appear in, and so need to be materially transformed to work in another medium.

As Reynolds puts in, in adaptation,

"...the narrative gaps that engender curiosity and foster debate, are necessarily reduced to readings shaped by adaptor, director, a team of designers and, pre-eminently, by the dictates of pace and spectacle." (All Plot and No Passion? Adapting His Dark Materials for The Stage)

And Warren, too, touches on the same in his survey of adaptations of A Christmas Carol:

"To flatten Charles Dickens’ outrageously unconventional novel into a conventional movie will mean allowing significant magic to fall through the cracks" (A Grand Yuletide Theory: The Muppet Christmas Carol is the Best Adaptation of A Christmas Carol)

Literal is not the same as faithful.

One must also recognise the way other adaptive changes, intentional or inherent have shifted the context in which dæmons figure.

The play is, as I say, fairly chronologically faithful to the novels. But perhaps the biggest departure in telling is that this version employs a framing device: it begins with a small scene on a simple set, Lyra and Will as they appear in their early twenties 'meeting' on their bench in the Botanic Garden, reminiscing in tandem about their adventures, before the reminiscing transforms into staging and Lyra goes from narrator to protagonist.

It's a neat marriage of practicality and meaning, the same understanding that form and function are one that Pullman shows in his own medium. The play has actors in their early twenties playing the twelve-year-old protagonists, and the framing device establishes this idea smoothly.

(And while it's a departure from my main topic of dæmon-representation for me to go into, I think it's worth again stressing how the choice to have Lyra and Will played by twenty-somethings is a more representative one than the more obviously 'literal' choice that the films can and must make to employ young actors of about the right canonical age. Because Lyra is only twelve in one way and narrowing down to that part of her identity closes down a lot about her character and the story. Lyra is written as a child and a girl, but she is also in a way an adult and a man, and a boy too, because she is made of Pullman's interiority and his memories of childhood. Lyra the book character is able to synthesise all these aspects, exist between subjectivity and objectivity for the reader, avatar and observed at once. A child actors on screen can only ever be a literal child. An adults actor on stage playing a child opens up that sense of the flux space where stories live.)

And Pantalaimon is there in the framing device, in his settled pine-marten form.

So in the play we don't just know from the start what Pantalaimon will settle as, we have a sense of default form. And for me that is a change to the text of the story that works to better serve the theme of the story in this medium than would a replication of the exact order of events and information of the book. It elegantly ties in the framing device and what's going on with the actors to the theme.

It makes the transformative quality do work, and therefore matter to us: because Lyra's actor is introduced to us as a twenty-something played by a twenty-something actor and then begins to play her own past self, the dæmon device is vitally important in making understand that this adult actor is now a child character.

Since this is a drastic shift in the direction from which this facet of dæmons is approached, it follows that the presentation of the idea will also change. There is, I think, a continuity of thought between what is done here and what was done in the novel.

I talked in Part II about how Pullman used the form of a moth to create a particular core idea of the archetypal dæmon. Something similar is done with the pine-marten-first approach. We have via the framing device the sense of the pine marten as a default, and indeed, Pantalaimon spends a good deal of the play represented by that puppet. His cat/wildcat form makes a good deal of appearences too, and I think the use of these two forms primarily does much to create the sense of plasticity that in the novel Pullman did with more frequent and varied changes. It allows Pantalaimon a continuity of size while also showing clearly marked difference of detail that reminds us of his capacity to change.

Lyra and Pantalaimon from both the 2003 and 2004 National Theatre productions

You might remember that in Part II I found fault with the screen adaptations' choice to do something which appears to be similar to what I am praising here: establishing Pantalaimon in a visually characterful, appealing form.

The difference is partly in the writing, in the play making a conscious choice to introduce Pantalaimon, and dæmons, via a different angle, adult-form-first.

I think it's also important that anyone without prior knowledge would be hard pressed to even name what exact kind of animal the above puppets, especially the 'pine marten', even represented. I think this vagueness of form is fully intentional, a way of expressing through puppetry and visuals what Pullman expressed through his word-based story: that Pantalaimon is plastic in form. His form cannot convey a set nature for Lyra yet not so much here because he's always changing, but because his baseline form is unnameable and opaque in symbolism.

Another crucial differences here is in the lens of the media in play. Novel, movie and TV contain an ability to alter focus - the close-up, the wide-angle etc. We can see the moth-Pantalaimon as clearly as the huge Iorek Byrnison. On stage of course whatever you want to read must be big and clear enough to be seen by those in the gods as well as the stalls. Between the physically distant eye of the theatre audience and the construction techniques and styling of these dæmon-puppets there is little risk of Pantalaimon falling into cutesy talking animal archetypes. He looks appealing but ethereal too, alive but constructed, animal but human.

The Puppeteers

In Japanese Kabuki theatre there is a role called the kuroko. Literally meaning ‘black child’ these are stagehands or running crew who operate openly in front of an audience throughout the play but are ignored by convention. They are dressed all in black to denote what figures should simply be eliminated from the of the audience’s imagination. Where the cast of Kabuki wear vivid makeup and elaborate costumes to denote particular types of character, the kuroko dress all in black and have their faces, too, masked by black fabric.

As well as moving scenery and inanimate props around, the kuroku’s job is also somewhat puppeteer, as seen above. They manipulate objects to create effects and the movement of non-human elements like animals and the wind.

(Other branches of Japanese theatre include similar rules. In bunkaru puppet theatre, the puppeteers also wear black to imply invisibility. Noh theatre also employs a similar convention, called there a kōken.)

And the kuroko is where Hytner and his team looked when considering dæmons. In Materials dæmons (at least those of significant players) are operated/performed by black-clad, black-masked puppeteer.

In fact these performers were pulled from the world of acting rather than being primarily puppeteers. Two now-famous names from that original production, Samuel Barnett (later of The History Boys and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) and Ben Whishaw (later of Cloud Atlas, Paddington and the latest Bond films), were in Materials playing dæmons - Pantalaimon and Kaisa respectively.

A trick worked out a long time ago in Kabuki is that you can really take an audience by surprise by having one of these black-clad stage-hands suddenly turn around and stab one of the ‘visible’ characters. This is in fact where the image of the ninja in popular imagination has grown from the black-clad assassin, invisible until they are upon you.

Stage-Materials imported that too: at the point in the narrative where Lyra must summon up and meet her Death, Pantalaimon’s operator stands up and removes his mask: he is her Death.

Sometimes the Pantalaimon puppet in use is passed off by his puppeteer-actor to Lyra’s actress for her to manoeuvre instead - for example, when Lyra is cuddling her dæmon close or he has taken mouse form to hide in her clothes. Pantalaimon’s puppeteer-actor usually stays close though, especially through the dæmon-oriented action of the Northern-Lights-based part of the play. He needs to provide Pantalaimon’s voice and also, less tangibly but just as importantly, his spirit.

Butler fills us in on some of the details of how puppets and puppeteers came together in rehearsals:

“The puppet department was working with the actors, the directors and the costume-makers, to find ways of placing the daemons on the bodies, ways of making slits and gaps in the costumes to conceal part of the daemons, ways of attaching magnets and mounts to the costumes to hold the daemons, and ways of threading fine string from the puppets through the costumes and onto a ring on the hand of an actor, so that he could twitch the beak or flutter the wings of his daemon bird. The nature of the daemons was changing too: sometimes it was only necessary to create the head and the tail, as the body could be concealed within the clothing. Video tapes began to show up in rehearsals: David Attenborough’s Life of Birds, Toy Story 2 and a documentary and wolves. The main half-dozen daemons, the ones operated by puppeteers, were Lyra’s Pantalaimon, Mrs. Coulter’s Golden Monkey, Lord Asriel’s snow leopard, Stelmaria, Roger’s Salcilia, Lee Scoresby’s hare Hester and Serafina Pekkala’s snow goose, Kaisa. In the ‘daemon work’ rehearsals for these main daemons, every move they made in a scene was worked out and marked down. The new phrase or all this activity was ‘physical underscore’. (The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, 2003)

Sadly there isn’t much footage available from the National Theatre production, either from its 2003 run or from its revival for the 2004 winter season, and nothing that focuses on the dæmon-puppetry. But this video, made to showcase the use of the stage’s drum revolve mechanism gives a good idea of how all this played out:

The section on show here is from towards the end of the first part of the play, which covered all of the story of Northern Lights and about the first half of The Subtle Knife, and the action playing out here is around Lyra and Will meeting and crossing into Will’s world.

It’s a shame not to have footage from an earlier, Lyra’s-world-focused part of the play where dæmons are more present, but this clip does give a good look at how they were handled, and how the handling transitioned too, if you know what you are looking at.

After the witches dash off, the first full scene we see, staged on top of the Drum Revolve, is of Lyra just after crossing into the world of Cittagazze. This is one of those archetypal His Dark Materials moments that I mentioned in Part I of this series (and which are somewhat missing from the movie and especially, and less forgivably, the series): Lyra and Pantalaimon, finding themselves in a confusing and dangerous new situation talk and chew their situation over together. If you watch closely you can see the black-clad Samuel Barnett appear at first puppet-less; the scene opens with Pantalaimon in Lyra’s arms and when she passes Barnett, she passes on the puppetering to him for the rest of the scene.

The next scene, staged within the Drum Revolve, depicts Mrs. Coulter at the Consistorial Court, and we see a brief bit of the golden monkey’s puppeteering and can even spot his inner light-bulb shining in the dark before the set’s lights come up

When we return to Lyra and Will’s storyline, Samuel Barnett is now left off-stage. It’s impossible to spot in this grainy footage but Lyra is again in charge of the puppet, this time a mouse, at first clutching him in her hands and then hiding him away before heading through the window (the script has Will say ‘Stick that dæmon of yours in your pocket’).

Similarly, the scene at the end of this video, of ‘Jopari’ and Lee Scoresby meeting with the witches has Hester appear in Lee’s arms, not being operated by a separate puppeteer in this scene, and all other dæmons absent (as they are the dæmons of witches and shamans they have the power of separation).

So again, we begin to see the shape of intelligent choices at work. The opening hour or so before this has of course been lousy with dæmons, set as it is exclusively in Lyra’s world. Just as in the book Northern Lights the writing – prose, plotting and character beats – are always working hard to establish dæmons in a way that makes us feel the appropriate emotions about them, begin to understand the underlying themes and concepts, and also make them feel totally natural to the story, the play has used stage craft to make what at first feels striking and noticeable – the puppets and the puppeteers – into something we accept unthinkingly.

Moving into the The Subtle Knife part of the story, the story moves away from this dæmon bias and the principle settings are the dæmonless world of Cittagazze and our own. And the play at this point chooses to downplay that part of the stagecraft too. It can do that because it has by now thoroughly earned our investment and belief in the stagecraft. We are prepared to take it as read that Pantalaimon is with Lyra but hiding in scenes set in our Oxford and Cittagazze, just as in the book dæmons don't need to be mentioned too often for them to feel present. The groundwork is all.

The play as a whole

Professor Reynolds admired as 'eloquent' the moment I previously mentioned concerning the dæmon/Death puppet/pupeteer device but generally considered that “...the puppet-daemons lack metaphorical resonance, and there is much that seems incompatible in having separate puppet handlers for the ‘star’ puppets."(All Plot and No Passion? Adapting His Dark Materials for The Stage).

I have obviously praised dæmons on-stage as a success, certainly when compared to the failings I perceive in screen adaptations, and ultimately I disagree with her conclusion that this specific aspect of the plays was a let-down of the book. But I do also sympathise with Reynolds view on the matter and certainly agree with some of her broader sentiments on the adaptation.

"Pullman’s texts are full of action: quests, battles, escapes, murders and more. Yet much of their success derives not from what happens, but what it seems to mean... Arguably, the success of the trilogy (and here I mean the books as distinct from the adaptations) lies not just in the books’ ability to engage readers in an extraordinary and powerful imaginary journey, but also because together they address deeply-felt cultural needs.." (All Plot and No Passion? Adapting His Dark Materials for The Stage by Professor Kimberley Reynolds).

Reynolds couldn't have known then that this was a problem that would come to haunt adaptations of His Dark Materials. Perhaps she would have looked more kindly at the stage version at the time had she, as I do here in 2019, had the luxury of comparing it to other adaptations which fall shorter.

But she's not wrong. Adaptations have varied in quality and success, but they have all fundamentally sacrificed a fidelity of spirit to a fidelity of plot and events. Without the interior side of things that the novel offered, Lyra's journey in the events of Northern Lights in particular becomes whimsical and conventional. As Warren pointed out with regards to A Christmas Carol,

" in the traditional sense can often be surprisingly antithetical to recreating the feelings conjured by the prose. To flatten Charles Dickens’ outrageously unconventional novel into a conventional movie will mean allowing significant magic to fall through the cracks. But by transmuting the book, discarding the original form in order to maintain its function, you can create something that honors what makes the work special far more effectively than any “faithful” effort." (A Grand Yuletide Theory: The Muppet Christmas Carol is the Best Adaptation of A Christmas Carol)

A Christmas Carol is the easiest length of story to adapt for film, the events of a novella neatly fitting a 100-minute or so run-time, and its folkloric three-spirits structure matching the classic act structure of cinema. And perhaps because of this neatness, filmmakers have often missed the ways in which, as Warren points out, it is 'deeply unconventional'.They have mistaken those features for mere peculiarities or flourishes which can be ironed away without disposing of anything very important.

Northern Lights is long and busy with events, quite different as a novel from A Christmas Carol, but it has in its own way the same problem: it looks conventional to the unimaginative eye. It is a quest story in a fantastical world full of larger-than-life ideas and characters. And sadly, though the National Theatre's take was, I think, it's own The Muppet Christmas Carol in some ways, understanding that it needed to transmute rather than literally adapt, in others it let 'significant magic fall through the cracks'.

His Dark Materials on stage was as much about showing off an incredible stage and budget as interpreting Pullman's story. Like the later screen adaptations, the budget was so huge nothing but spectacle and broad appeal could be allowed, and while all three sets of adaptors have been keen to insist that this consideration can sit comfortably alongside depth and challenge, this has yet to be proved in my opinion.

As Reynolds points out, the Hytner/Wright production of His Dark Materials is a frantic four-hour, technically dazzling dash through the plot more oriented around intricate blocking and spectacle rather than being guided by ideas as interesting, grand or nuanced as the books.

But I also think of those lines Pullan wrote about the experience of the theatre:

The experience of being in the audience when a play or an opera is being performed is not simply passive. It's not like watching TV; it's not even like going to the cinema. Everyone in that big space is alive, and everyone is focused on one central activity. And everyone contributes. The actors and singers and musicians contribute their performance; the audience contribute their attention, their silence, their laughter, their applause, their respect. And they contribute their imagination, too. The theatre can't do what cinema does, and make everything seem to happen literally. There are no pixels on the stage; what happens is caused by physical bodies moving about in real space, not by computer-generated imagery on a screen. So it has limitations. That isn't a real room, it's painted canvas, and it looks like it; that isn't a real boy, it's a little wooden puppet. But the limitations leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. We pretend these things are real, so the story can happen. The very limitations of theatre allow the audience to share in the acting. In fact, they require the audience to pretend. It won't work if they don't. (Theatre - the true key stage by Philip Pullman for The Guardian)

His Dark Materials at the National Theatre was not a perfect execution for stage of Pullman's trilogy. It sacrifices some thoughtfulness for ambition and some depth for plot. But its is full of intelligence and passion, and when those principles are applied to the medium of theatre and/or puppetry, something magical can happen.

I have been trying to work out how to talk about Heinrich von Kleist's essay On The Marionette Theatre here, because it was one of Pullman's chief inspirations for His Dark Materials, and there is self-evidently something important to talk about in the relationship there, between the place of the figurative marionette in inspiration and the literal marionette in adaptation. But it is beyond me at present, perhaps beyond the scope of this series, which is really a look at creative and adaptive craft than anything.

But I will leave this section on this quote, because it encapsulates so much of why the dæmons of the National Theatre work so well for me at least, and what I find so lacking in screen-dæmons. And it makes me think too of what I have talked about with regards to the way Pullman writes, manipulating the strings a little and trusting the imagination of his audience to fall into 'a kind of rhythmic movement'.

Each movement, he told me, has its centre of gravity; it is enough to control this within the puppet. The limbs, which are only pendulums, then follow mechanically of their own accord, without further help. He added that this movement is very simple. When the centre of gravity is moved in a straight line, the limbs describe curves. Often shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance. (On The Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist)

Next time: dæmons on screen!


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