Hellfire behind the old saws

June 26, 1998

AS I LAY DYING. By William Faulkner. Adapted by Edward Kemp. Young Vic.

Not much actually happens in As I Lay Dying. Faulkner's novel tells of the death of a woman in Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi, and of the subsequent efforts of her family to bring her to her burial ground. Within this skeleton drama, he anatomizes a universe of familial decay, poverty, poverty of experience, and poverty of expression. In his stage adaptation, Edward Kemp draws deeply on the same well of misery, but is obliged to use very different means in order to make essentially private dramas public. Whereas the divisions of internal monologue and narrative in Faulkner are clear, Kemp's play subjoins several character's recollections to a single scene, actively combining the story's antithetical qualities of stasis and struggle, memory and experience.

At the start, Addie Bundren lies ill in bed, centre-stage; through the window, we hear Cash, her son, making her coffin. The ground is dusty; there is an appropriate amount of fanning, spitting and wiping of the brow. Familial tension insinuates itself into the production which, at first, seems halting: when Cash's saw is mentioned, he is revealed upstage - sawing. But the rhythms of the script are soon established, and the family's difficult journey through the county to Jefferson is compelling. The cast are on-stage throughout; despair at the lack of progress, the asphyxiating effect of unwelcome company, and the debilitating parasitism of hearing continual complaint and accusation are all well realized. Kemp fails Faulkner only in his avoidance of those refrains - just once we hear Anse Bundren moan "If ever was such a misfortune man" - which are the hallmarks of a defeated spirit.

The substitute for these regular cadences - each repetition a new surrender - is Adrian Lee's original score for waterphone, musical saw, chromatic bass and brick wrap, inter alia. The accompaniment is atmospheric - repeated whole-note scales conjure a hazy irreality - though prone to a kind of scene-setting overstatement. Two key moments benefit: the hauling of Addie Bundren's coffin and wagon across the flooded river, and Darl's attempt to burn down the barn in which his mother, now eight days dead, lies unburied. Where spectacle and narrative combine, in the second, the drama is powerful and complete. Cora Tull and Addie Bundren argue about damnation while Minister Whitfield delivers a homily on Judgment; in the background, hellfire rages.

The play's cohesion is undermined, however, by aspects of the production which detract from the novel's fundamental tragic economy. Everything in Faulkner is pared down to the bone: Anse Bundren betrays the memory of his dead wife for a new set of teeth, and physical suffering is to the fore. Jewel is burnt, Cash breaks his leg (twice), and two of the nails in Addie's coffin are later found to have "bored on in into her face". But the director, Tim Supple, looks too hard for light amid the shade. So far from being an amusing digression, Cash's unexpected soliloquy on the significance of bevelled edges in coffin design is almost an article of faith. And when Cora (Sarah C. Cameron) sings "I'm bounding toward my God and my reward", she means it. The self-satisfaction of her piety is obscured by the comedy of having her sing it out of tune.

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