Take Me Back to Jefferson partners The National Arts English Theatre with Theatre Smith-Gilmour in its minimalist stage adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1930 southern Gothic novel As I Lay Dying. Should you see it?
One of the worst experiences of my University career was studying Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in a 20th Century Literature course. The novel was convoluted, hard to follow and felt full of nonsense at times. The novel introduces a series of unlovable family members as they trek to Jefferson, Mississippi to bury the family matron Addie Bundren in her hometown. It’s a novel that relies heavily on a stream of conscious narrative contributed by 15 different characters and is ultimately so dark of a comedy that it truly should be a tragedy. Needless to say I was less than thrilled to relive these University months in one evening at The National Arts Centre.
Yet the more the play developed, the more the characters unfolded, the more I grew to appreciate the contents of this novel that I so despised 10 years ago. Take Me Back to Jefferson is about the Bundren family and how they come to terms with the curveballs that life has thrown at them, whether it revolves around death, disaster, mental health or greed and how they interact with each other. In fact when As I Lay Dying was published in 1930 it addressed a lot of risqué and taboo subjects of the day including abortion, rape, infidelity and severe mental health issues, and the way that it even comes across in this production allowed the audience to feel a certain level of discomfort.
The play itself holds many more characters than just the Bundren family, but by double and sometimes triple casting the small cast the play carries a simpler flow to it. It’s a show that is definitely not for everyone as it takes quite a while to actually get into the content, to understand the stream-of-consciousness dialogue and to get used to the bare stage.
The bare stage was probably my favourite aspect of Take Me Back to Jefferson; it consisted of minimal props and absolutely no set. It allowed for much more movement on stage and left a lot up to the imagination. The stage should be filled with sprawling farm land, horses and mules, barns and rivers, a wagon and a coffin, yet everything, for the most part, is pantomimed or acted out by various actors which end up adding a layer of depth to the show that was only enhanced by the spectacular lighting and sound effects.
To perform in such a production as well must be gruelling and exhausting. There was almost a sense of frantic rushing from scene to scene, but once the action starts to take place you become completely immersed in the on stage actions. Dean Gilmour, co-director and head of the Bundren family, Anse, was absolutely captivating from the moment he took the stage to the moment he left and local Ottawa actor Ben Muir was by far the strongest member of the cast who had full control over every scene he was in, regardless of whether he took the lead in the scene or just sat in the background.
This isn’t to say that this adaptation is perfect, I would say far from it. It’s definitely not a play that everyone will be able to appreciate. The theatre does lose some of its audience at intermission, and perhaps that’s more in relation to the actual content of the play than anything else. This is a play that ultimately shows ignorance begetting tragedy and chaos. What really drove me crazy were the incessant blackouts used for scene transitions. I started counting in the middle of the first Act and from the middle of the first Act to the end of the show there over 35 blackouts.
The expositional narrative can also come across as pedantic and full of drivel at times which can affect the feel of the shows pacing. However, when we actually talk about the actors who represent the characters it’s a completely different story. Learning all of the stage choreography and spiralling stream of consciousness monologues must have been tough, yet they were well polished.
Take Me Back to Jefferson is truly a daring piece and while it works a lot of the time, it’s truly the content that drags it down.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you thought. What did you think of Take Me Back to Jefferson? Have you read As I Lay Dying? What are your thoughts on the content of the novel? Did it transition well to stage? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.