Tuesday 21 March 2023

Theatre review:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I've not really enjoyed Complicité's work much so their latest, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was an easy one to skip; until Kathryn Hunter was announced as the lead, making it a much more exciting proposition. Unfortunately Hunter has been taken ill, with Amanda Hadingue taking over the lead role of Janina for tonight's performance, which leaves me back where I started, with a Complicité show and no real selling point. And as it turns out, Simon McBurney and the company's adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk's eco-thriller is almost entirely narrated by its leading lady, so while Hadingue delivers a strong and likeable performance, having her perform the three-hour show with three teleprompters feeding her her lines is no substitute for Hunter's unique talents.

Janina is a semi-retired teacher and amateur astrologer who lives in a small Polish town, at the edge of a large forest near the Czech border. It's a place whose identity is largely bound up with hunting, and when the two dogs she called her "daughters" disappeared a few months ago, she suspects they were killed in a hunting accident. But when her neighbour dies suddenly, it kicks off a series of suspicious deaths among the regular hunting party. Consulting the dead men's horoscopes, Janina is convinced nature has started taking revenge, and the animals of the forest have been killing the men.

Naturally the authorities don't take much notice, so with her creepy neighbour (César Sarachu) and a former student (Alexander Uzoka) as sidekicks she sets out to investigate herself. The title is a William Blake quote, and Blake's poetry is a recurring theme throughout the evening, giving the story a sense of doom-laden atmosphere. And apart from a couple of comic lines this doom is the prevailing mood of the evening. The story itself is a wrily interesting metaphor for humanity's overdue comeuppance for the way we've destroyed the natural world, and particularly the lack of respect for living beings. There's particular digs at the way the Church has contributed to this with its teaching that man is set above all the animals, when the local priest (Tim McMullan,) instead of comforting Janina for the loss of her dogs, scolds her for putting so much love into creatures without souls. The big twist is visible from space but overall it works as a narrative.

But I remain unconvinced that there's anything special about the way Complicité present this, and found this a dull evening - I was fifty-fifty on whether to leave at the interval. In adapting another "unstageable" novel it relies heavily on Hadingue narrating, with the rest of the cast occasionally joining the scene. There's some physical stuff from the ensemble in the background, but as Paule Constable's lighting pretty much keeps them in darkness it didn't really affect my experience of the story; Dick Straker's projections seem to be used heavily, but from the edges of the auditorium they're only partially visible so I can't comment on what they contribute*. And having Janina call out the oppressively droning music (composed by Richard Skelton, sound design by Christopher Shutt) is all funny enough but doesn't change the effect it's created. I know booking a show entirtely on the basis of the lead performer is a strategy fraught with disappointment†, especially after the last few years, but here it seems the production has been built entirely around Hunter's unique presence, so Hadingue's best efforts can't salvage it in her absence.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Simon McBurney and Complicité, based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk, is booking until the 1st of April at the Barbican Theatre (returns only,) then continuing on tour to Nottingham, Coventry, Salford, Recklinghausen, Luxembourg, Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam and Paris.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*the Barbican's restricted view seats are usually pretty decent because of the wide stage, but Rae Smith's design for this production has a narrower proscenium arch meaning quite a lot of upstage action is blocked if you're at the sides

†which is all very well but half the West End's marketing is built entirely around casting

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