Faulkner’s “Absolon Absolon” becomes theater / avant garde film in Avignon

By Lucy Komisar

I thought I was going to see a theater piece when I entered La Fabrica, a main stage of the Avignon Theater Festival. It turned out to be as much video as stage play. And very avant garde.

“Absalom, Absalom!” is based on the novel by William Faulkner, published in 1936. Faulkner tells the story of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man born into poverty in western Virginia who moves to Mississippi where he hopes to become rich and be the patriarch of a family. He needs a wife to bear him children, especially a son and heir.

Sutpen coming out of a coffin. photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage/ Festival d’Avignon.

The novel is written as flashbacks and recounts the tragedies that befall Sutpen and his family because of the corruption of the southern slave culture in which they live. It includes unintentioned miscegenation and the threat of incest.

The adapter/director Séverine Chavrier says the key question is the illegitimacy of the United States based on black slavery and the abuses of native Americans. And this is shown through the history of a white family that destroys itself.

To follow the Faulkner story, you had to know it. Or just take the actions as it is played. And to understand the director’s interest in the father, the patriarchy and the system of exploitation that they produce.

Sutpen and the young woman he takes as his wife. photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage/ Festival d’Avignon.

A man, the anti-hero Sutpen, in jagged movements comes out of a smoky coffin. Then he pulls it around the dirt.

On stage, Sutpen walks to a real car with a young woman whose father had no money and gave/sold her to him as chattel. He describes what she has to do. “If you have a boy, you’ll have done your job.” Curiously she does not fight back but becomes a consumer with his money.

The videos on a large screen are live projections of actors interacting in small sections of the stage below. As this was theater, I tried to focus on them, but my gaze was taken by the much larger screen above, which also showed English supertitles of the French dialogue.

People mob a car, photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage/ Festival d’Avignon.

A figure moves on top of a house. A comedian is asked, what do you do? He says, “I drink, I can pretend to die.” There is a shower of bent soda cans.

Sutpen appears as a huge face on the screen. We see him driving and running through a field of bent soda cans. Two real autos take turns moving on stage.The cars play a big role. In one scene people mob on it. So to say this is not linear is to understate it.

A short-haired punk woman calls Sutpen Bluebeard. There is not so much dialogue as singing declamations. And curious threats to life. A snake crawls over a sleeping man. Or alternatives. Real chickens and a turkey strut on the dirt on the stage. A huge vulture lands on a car. I liked those parts!

43 years later, wife? daughter? photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage/ Festival d’Avignon.

At one point, Sutpin shouts, “I am not a fool.” But that doesn’t go anywhere.

Shift to 43 years later, we see his wife or maybe his daughter, but by then I lost track.

At one moment, actors squirt machine-gun style water-guns. All artistically interesting, great visuals, but alas, the visual pieces don’t make a play.

Absolon Absolon.” Adapted and directed by Séverine Chavrier based on novel by William Faulkner. French with English surtitles. Produced by Comédie de Genève at La Fabrica, 11 rue Paul Achard, Avignon. Runtime 4 hours. June 29 to July 7, 2024.

Cast: Pierre Artières-Glissant, Daphné Biiga Nwanak, Jérôme de Falloise, Alban Guyon, Adèle Joulin, Jimy Lapert, Armel Malonga, Annie Mercier, Hendrickx Ntela, Laurent Papot, Kevin Bah. The roles they play are not provided. Festival of Avignon.

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