Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Complicité / Simon McBurney, based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk
Barbican Theatre

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Credit: Marc Brenner

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Polish writer, psychologist and Nobel Literature Laureate Olga Tokarczuk which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. It takes its title from a poem by William Blake whose work is several times quoted by its central character Janina Duszejko, a schoolteacher in a mountain village near the Czech border who shares the feelings Blake expresses about the relations between humans and other species.

Janina presents her own story, alone on an empty stage, addressing us through a microphone, a little uncertainly at first but growing in confidence, while out of the darkness appear its characters and a combination of scenic elements, video, lighting and sound with which Rae Smith, Dick Straker, Paule Constable and Christopher Shutt create an atmospheric mixture of forest, sky, astrological charts, quoted poems, homesteads, a church and other locations to great effect.

Janina is concerned at the disappearance of her dogs, whom she calls her daughters and suspects that village hunters have shot them. Theirs are the first of a series of deaths that make this a murder mystery. There is a ghost element too: Janina sees her dead mother in her boiler room.

There’s a hunter she calls Bigfoot she hates; he kills animals and treats his dog badly. He is the first unexplained victim. When she goes to his hut with friendly neighbour Oddball, they find his body and the dismembered remains of a deer that provided his last meal. Is the bone in his throat the cause of death? Outside, two deer appear to be watching; Janina thinks they have something to do with it.

Next to die is the police commandant who comes to investigate, then a wealthy farmer who is caught in a trap, both of them hunters. The president of the village hunters’ club follows and then the priest who officiates at the inauguration of a new chapel to St Hubert, patron saint of hunters, dies when it is burned down. Janina finds the astrology of each of them predicted their manner of death and suggests it is the animals taking their revenge.

On Janina’s side, as it were, are Oddball (César Sarachu), her former student Dizzy (Alexander Uzoka), another Blake enthusiast, and entomologist Boros (Johannes Flaschberger), who wants the government to protect a rare species of beetle found in the forest.

If you have not read the book, it would spoil things to tell you who did the murders, but this this isn’t an Agatha Christie-type story; it is dark and poetic and turns what could be self-consciously woke into a fascinating piece of theatre. Its ensemble of actors not only put on animal masks for a masked dance in the hunters’ headquarters but skilfully represent animals with hands that become antlers, a dog looks up at its master with canine eyes. The humans have their individual eccentricities but they are as real as the animals in this noir drama. It last three hours including interval but I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.

Kathryn Hunter was cast as Janina but was taken suddenly ill on the planned press night. She is expected to return to the cast later, but on the deferred press night the role was played by Amanda Hadingue and she gives an amazing performance, consistently holding our attention though almost always the centre of attention and source of information though surrounded by sharp characterisations and beautifully controlled technical effects. This is another fine signature work from Simon McBurney and Complicité.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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