The stage in front of you is dark. Suddenly, a beam of light appears and highlights an older woman in a mismatched tracksuit, who starts a skilful monologue – almost a stand-up performance, addressing the audience directly, and telling her current life’s story. And it just gets more and more interesting: you are taken on a wild ride using a mixture of dark comedy, murder mystery and even…some mature romance. All this is beautifully displayed with a backdrop of a small Polish village, bordering a dangerous, vast forest, where the wild animals live… and kill. It’s a fairytale-like, metaphorical play that you can peel like an onion and continuously discover something new.
Complicité, the world-renowned theatre company, took on an ambitious task to bring onto the stage an interpretation of Nobel Prize-winning writer Olga Tokarczuk’s darkly comic novel, “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”. Directed by Simon McBurney, this play enjoys keeping things and secrets in the dark and teasing the audience with little hints along the way.
The story starts as men from the local hunting club are one by one dying in mysterious circumstances, and Janina (Kathryn Hunter / Amanda Hadingue – I saw a performance with Hadingue in the main role), an eccentric older local woman, environmentalist and devoted astrologer, has her suspicions. Her special bond with animals and the universe tells her it may not have been a human who committed the murders…
“Drive Your Plow…” portrays a painfully true picture of a small Polish village. from the almighty power of a local priest to fancy dress parties where you dance to the rhythm of classic disco polo, and the conservative society who thinks including the word “businesswomen” while greeting the crowd is considered a highly progressive act.
I remember when Agnieszka Holland premiered her film version of Olga Tokarczuk’s book (in 2017), and the film was chosen to represent Poland at the Oscars. The conservative part of Polish media expressed shock as they deemed the production “anti-Polish” and “anti-catholic”. Fair point about the second comment – the film’s plot features a memorable scene where a local priest keeps preaching about animals having no soul and simply existing to to serve men. His voice is fully-acclaimed by the locals, but one person – Janina (this scene is also portrayed in Complicité’s production), turning her, naturally, into the village’s main feminist and laughing stock.
The book and the movie became a nationwide argument (at least for a good week or two, until a new important news appeared, classic case). The film didn’t end up nominated for Oscars, but it still made huge waves – the film was shot so entrancingly, showcasing the touristically underrated Dolina Klodzka – that every single scene showcasing Polish forests and nature could be freeze-framed, printed and hung on the wall as a piece of art.
So, how did Complicite’s stage production compare to the previous efforts to visualise Tokarczuk’s book?
The show’s staging is fantastic, with a balanced ensemble that gives a strong presence even if they are just standing in the dark back of the stage wearing black jackets. The show is constructed in a form or series of Janina’s monologues, but the multi-skilled ensemble is such a crucial and present part of the show.
They perform multiple, varied roles, from a staff of a local government office or police, all the way to participants of a local village fancy dress party (these animal masks! Stunning costume work by Rae Smith).
The stage set is kept intentionally minimalistic, but it does deliver some creative ideas. Some of my favourite moments included using puffy winter jackets hanging in the air to create the “dark forest”. And then in act 2, as we meet the “President” giving a speech to a local group, the sizeable mirror at the back of the stage successfully creates an uncomfortable, surprising feel as the audience sees their faces in the crowd of gathered listeners.
The play’s lighting design is a standout element, with a strong emphasis on contrast. The opening scenes are shrouded in near-complete darkness, with the spotlight solely on Janina. However, as we become more acquainted with her, the light gradually illuminates her surroundings and the community she resides in. Notably, a powerful flash is utilised to great effect, emphasising moments of realisation or statement with striking intensity. I think it’s worth mentioning that the product contains several trigger warnings that should be taken into consideration (including violence and the staged mistreatment of animals).
The costumes in the production are intriguing, as they are more minimalistic and subdued than extravagant. This doesn’t detract from their impact, and they serve to support the narrative effectively. One particularly enjoyable aspect was when the actors were changing outfits, and the garments were promptly lifted to the ceiling on hangers, vanishing from view in mere seconds. This cleverly streamlined the transitions between scenes and added a visually striking touch to the show.
Polish language and culture in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”
In terms of the Polish language, the cast does their best, but they struggle with the pronunciation of Polish cities and names, even Janina doesn’t use a native pronunciation of her name (unless it was on purpose, to highlight that she’s an English teacher – but still, pronouncing this name with an English sound to it just didn’t sit right with me).
However, there’s a highlight in a form of Janina’s neighbour Oddball (played by the instantly likeable César Sarachu) who beautifully whispers “Świętopełk” – and that’s a challenging tongue twister!
The show does bring back lots of stereotypes (unfortunately) about Polish village life and communities. The power of a local priest, who is still, in many locations in Poland, seen as the natural, unmistaken leader, whose words can’t be opposed. And then the culture of hunters and poachers, quite widely spread. There are over 100,000 registered hunters in Poland, and an unknown number of poachers. Most of them are retirees and unemployed (source), who turn this activity in search of their true life’s meaning…
The play is a bitter pill to swallow, as Janina is shown as a slightly crazy yet nice person who holds her morals high. And eventually, after all the hopes and investigation, it’s all crushed by the end of the show, leaving us with ultimately no hope for good in society. The performance asks the question: what we do if even the heroes we adore may eventually become villains?
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a must-see play, that explores the dark side of human nature and the society we live in. It raises important questions about activism, the cosmos, and (weirdly) the poetry of William Blake. With a fantastic ensemble and a strong lighting design, this play will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk
published in Great Britain by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Director Simon McBurney
Set and Costume Designer Rae Smith
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Sound Designer Christopher Shutt
Video Designer Dick Straker
Additional Direction Kirsty Housley
Dramaturgs Laurence Cook and Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre
Movement Director Toby Sedgwick
Original Compositions Richard Skelton
Assistant Director Gemma Brockis
Associate Costume Designer Johanna Coe
Wigs Designer Susanna Peretz
Casting Amy Ball CDG
Additional Movement Crystal Pite
Associate Lighting Designer Lucía Sánchez Roldán
Sound Associate Ella Wahlström
Video Associates Jachym Bouzek and Jakub Xiv for Mesmer
Associate Video Designer Ross Flight
Design Assistants William Fricker and Ruth Hall
Original novel translation Antonia Lloyd-Jones
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