Death and the Ploughman

Johannes von Saaz

Gate Theatre

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

This play is a real oddity. It was written in about 1400 as a reaction to the death of the playwright's wife. This version has been translated from the original Middle High German by Irish playwright Michael West and is excellently directed by Deborah Bruce.

Death and the Ploughman is a darkly poetic elegy that attempts to consider what death means from many angles. In this production Death is embodied thrice: as a lugubrious old man (Tim Barlow), as a young, sometimes brutal charmer (Ben Nealon) and as a pregnant, sympathetic young woman (Madeleine Bowyer).

Thanks to Deborah Bruce, who decided on the triple casting idea, death can have many characters in its battle with the ploughman, played by Simon Meacock. All four actors get soliloquies to savour and turn in good performances and they are helped by Katharine Williams' superbly eerie lighting.

The dreamlike play starts with a lambasting curse delivered by the distraught ploughman against the death that has taken his beloved wife during childbirth. He gets as good as he gives. Death explains that it is the reason for life and, anyway, is inevitable. Railing will do no good and quiet acceptance makes more sense.

In 34 two-minute chapters, von Saaz has the chance to enter into much deep philosophical meditation not just on death but on life and God. He even manages to attack capitalism and globalisation along the way.

An initial reading might suggest that Death and the Ploughman would be best delivered either as a short story or a radio play. In Deborah Bruce's hands it becomes a fascinatingly staged production, unlike anything else on the London stage at present.