Kathryn Hunter is, quite literally, a force of nature in acclaimed theatre company Complicité’s take on Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Armed with nothing else but a plastic carrier bag, she says she has a story to tell us, and by delivering it in a frank and factual manner, her story of a series of mysterious murders becomes utterly gripping.
Simon McBurney (of The Encounter) is on directorial duties, and approaches a theatrical staging of the Booker-shortlisted book with a marvellous minimalism. Ever experimental with sound, McBurney – with Christopher Shutt on sound design – has Hunter’s Janina speak her internal monologue and narrative into a microphone on a stand at the front of the stage. It’s intimate and claustrophobic, the ensemble – cloaked in black and lurking in the shadows – often huddled together behind her. Everything is used as and when required, which gives way to an eerie essentialism. An amusing example is when Janina steps outside into cold, snowy winds, and it’s only when Hunter mentions this fact that company hurriedly dig into their pockets and shower her with snow like confetti.
Save for the spotlight on Hunter and her microphone, light is used sparingly, to the extent that a lack of it creates a grisly atmosphere, and it’s abrupt appearances in bright floodlights become overwhelming and disorientating. At one point, Janina states that “the largest things are contained in the smallest”, and it certainly speaks to McTurney’s artistic vision here.
While the male characters – be it the police or the huntsmen – don either black, grey and white, Janina and those close to her sport dashes of colour. Dick Straker’s haunting video design is equally noir and monochrome, and in fact the only real colour is reserved for disco parties (featuring Martin Garrix’s “Animals”, of course) and the specks of snow to the green foliage – the latter of which makes sense when you think about it.
After all, it’s hardly surprising that the environmentally conscious Complicité are staging another play about animals and nature. This one specifically supposes the hunters are becoming the hunted, with the creatures of the forest exacting their revenge. It carries over the confrontational and provocative arguments from its source material (its interrogation of the religious hunters killing animals while also worshipping a deity who is the only one capable of determining life and death is particularly daring, as is its scrutiny of the limitations of justice), and McBurney’s edgy direction only accentuates this. One character, the ‘President’, goes on an all too familiar rant about “jobs and growth” at one point, using the classic thumb pointing technique deployed by many politicians in the process.
Though by the second act, you’ll come to realise that this version of Drive Your Plow isn’t completely focussed on an animal uprising, and that animal rights and climate change are more the wider subject matters there to untangle if an audience member so wishes. Instead, it’s more about Janina as an individual, a woman who still mourns the loss of her two “daughters” (her dogs) and regularly cites the works of William Blake throughout her theatrical testimony. Hunter, who had to pull out of the press night performance at the last-minute due to illness, plays a Janine riddled with ailments with a knowing delicacy, acknowledging in the opening that she has the remnants of a cough courtesy of COVID. As her character opines about astrology and mortality, this quiet acknowledgement gives her character a delicate humanity which is easy for us to connect with, which makes us overlook her contradictions.
Contradictions which mean she seems a tad offended when other characters she has nicknamed – such as Oddball and Good News – aren’t up for talking much, yet goes on to reveal she doesn’t like people a lot and is rather pleased that one nasty man dubbed ‘Bigfoot’ has been killed. The darting narrative between the present and character backstories also hints at something erratic or unreliable, but it only really hits us in hindsight. The fact a three-hour play takes an entire first act to hypothesise that the animals might be to blame feels drawn out in the moment (and let’s be clear, there are certainly scenes – like Janina and two acquaintances getting high – which could have done with being cut), but makes sense when the story’s main mystery is resolved.
In amongst all the death around her, Janina is calm and calculating, and there’s something chilling and unsettling in that. Once again, Complicité create a show which is unflinching, intense and intrusive, but this time with an aesthetic and performances which are gloriously ghoulish.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is now playing at the Barbican Theatre until 1 April.
Captioned, Polish surtitles (translated captions) and audio described performances will take place on 25, 28 and 30 March respectively.
It will then continue its UK and European tour, concluding in Paris on 17 June.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.