adapted from William Faulkner's novel by Peter Gill
Review by Michael Coveney, Financial Times, 17 October 1985
Several planks and a passion are the key to this startling National Theatre adaptation by Peter Gill of William Faulkner's 1930 novel. Addie Bundren lies dead and dying on a tilted table while her husband and children prepare to remove her corpse, as promised, to the town she came from. This is the fictional Faulkner territory of Yoknapatawpha, the rustic northern Mississippian hill country of the novelist's background.
Gill and his designer, Alison Chitty, make fresh imaginative use, thank God, of their familiar bare boards policy. Oldest son Cash is painstakingly constructing his mother's coffin for much of the book. Here the planks encroach on Addie from the floor, lean casually among shavings to the side of the stage and are even nailed graphically to daubs of blue sky. The actors are grouped in frozen friezes around the table. One by one they emerge to set the narrative — and the passion — in motion.
The took is a still challenging assemblage of 59 interior monologues during which the four boys and the one daugher, 17-year-old Dewey Dell (Joanne Whalley), jostle for position and favour as Addie's corpse is transported on a perilous cross country journey to Faulkner's "Jefferson." Dewey Dell is pregnant and Jefferson holds promise of abortive medicine. The second son, Darl, is jealous of Addie's devotion to the third boy, Jewel. As played by Daniel Webb and Stephen Petcher, this ferociously interlocked sibling rivalry in the shadow of a contested mother echoes Gill's best play Small Change. It does not seem to matter that, in Faulkner, there is 10 years of age between them.
Gill's precious groupings are held powerfully, daringly, until the actors break free in various physical combinations. Sometimes this comes from within the family circle, as when June Watson's wonderfully half-ghost Addie arises eerily on her left elbow to shout at her coffin-boffin son, or when the dangerous of the river with the levee at its height are conveyed simply by four actors clasping wrists in a human chain. The dark land of Faulkner's noiseless speech is ever present, brought sharply into focus with Miss Watson's recollection that her father had said that "the reason for living is to get ready to stay dead."
I am surprised, therefore, that Darl is denied the most extraordinary speech in the book, that about emptying himself before sleep, as it is crucial to his temperamental animosity towards Jewel. But the centripetal energy of the book's structure is beautifully caught in the stagging and reinforced by the presence of an inside outsider, Gillian Barge's righteously analytical dunder head Cora Tull, and by the impinging sanely comprehensible buffers of Paul Imbusch's doctor and James Hayes's chemist.
The play is difficult to follow, as the book is difficult to read. But it is worth the effort and, like the best of all Peter Gill's work, it is instinct with gestural scrupulousness and a sort of throbbing, humorless integrity. Faulkner's jocularity, anyway, was never seen to best advantage in this novel, but I feel it a shame that we end on a reverse filial pieta rather than on the news that old Bundren (Robert Hamilton) finds not only a new wife, but also new teeth, as his grim mission is accomplished. The adaptation, for all its merits, is more concerned with mothers and sons than with Faulkner's wild descriptive landscape.
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