As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is not an easy book. But in his adaptation for the Young Vic, Edward Kemp both captures the book s spirit and creates a dynamic play in its own right.
This is not a cheerful story. It charts the disintegration of the Bundren family, poor farmers in the deep American South. As the play opens, the mother Addie (Sandy McDade) lays dying. Her husband Anse, played by Christopher Saul with the stoop of a man defeated by life, is already more worried about his promise to bury her 40 miles away than her actual passing.
With her death, the ill-fated journey to keep that promise begins. Heavy rains wash out the bridges, forcing them to go the long way round. By the time they reach the graveyard the body, unburied for over a week in the height of summer, is accompanied by vultures as well as her increasingly dysfunctional family.
One son, Cash (Robert Bowman), has a gangrenously broken leg. Another, Darl (Paul M. Meston), has slipped into madness and been hauled off to prison. Daughter Dewey Dell (Thusitha Jayasundera) has tried and failed to abort her incestuously fathered child.
These characters reveal their unhappy secrets against a set, by Melly Still, that works as hard as the actors to transport us to Faulkner's South. The dirt that covers the Young Vic's theatre in the round, the rough hewn planks, the water that drenches the actors when they try to ford the river, all contribute to the sense of futility that dogs the Bundren family. Only one note jars - the sparklers used to symbolise a buring barn create so much smoke that is hard to see the players afterwards.
The company is impressive. To a keen ear, their accents sometimes slip from deep South to south of England, but that is a minor quibble. Jayasundra creates the confusion of young Dewey Dell as much through her movements as through her words. Meston has the most difficult job - Darl s speeches are too long, too richly descriptive, to translate easily to the spoken word.
In the end, the literary nature of the text may be its ultimate failing - the life and characters are too far removed from the audience and, consequently, the play never quite makes the leap to become truly moving theatre. That said, this production is never less than gripping.