Multiple narrative test
adapted from William Faulkner's novel by Peter Gill
Review by Irving Wardle, The Times, 16 October 1985
Peter Gill's adaptation of William Faulkner's novel is primarily an experiment in multiple narrative, putting the book's own antitheses between words and action to the test of physical enactment.
As I Lay Dying tells the story of Addie Bundren's burial, through the descriptions and meditations of her husband, children, and neighbours. Addie, a stranger in her own home, has found no meaning in her life - least of all in the vocabulary of marital love. To confer a posthumous meaning on her existence, she leaves instructions that the family are to build her a coffin and then carry her body from rural Mississippi to Jefferson and bury her there. This toilsome journey from the hills to the town, involving floods and fire, amounts simultaneous to a sacramental ritual and the central plot.
As inhabitants of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the characters would find near relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. With names like Darl, Dewey Dell, and Jewel (Addie's illegitimate favourite son), they include one simple-minded boy and another who winds up in a Jefferson mental home.
Gothic excess and risible anticlimaxes aside, the over-powering face about this little society is its terrible loneliness; hence Mr Gill's chosen theatrical task of presenting a group action by a collection of people who can barely make contact with one another.
Mr Gill has taken certain stylistic decisions which I do not understand. One of these is to preserve descriptions of actions which the person described is conspicuously not performing. Another, particularly in the chorus scenes (such as the struggle to get the hearse over the river), is to whip the group up into frenzied accounts of a supposedly visible event, while preserving past tense descriptions. Too often the effect of this is to muffle the impact so much that attention wanders. Otherwise this is an event with the poise of a piece of Shaker furniture, and performances (especially those of Stephen Petcher and Daniel Webb) whose passion is intensified by the extreme discipline of the style.
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