A triumphant stage adaptation: ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ Review

Image Credit: Marc Brenner


As chilling as its title, Complicité’s ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’, is a haunting masterpiece of theatre examining humanity’s link with nature in a small town near the Polish-Czech border. Based on the novel of the same title by 2018 Literature Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, the world she created flows off the pages and onto the stage with remarkable innovation in this adaptation from director Simon McBurney at the Lowry Theatre, Manchester.

Fiercely witty and impressive throughout, Kathryn Hunter plays the narrator of the story, Janina Duszejko, often lit up by a single spotlight at an isolated microphone on the cavernous stage. Branded a ‘mad woman’ by the townsfolk, the audience is immersed into Janina’s eccentricities, love for nature and respect for daily life’s cosmic interference. As her narrative unfolds she slowly reveals that from her missing dogs to townsfolk dying of mysterious circumstances, things seem to be amiss in the area.

There are the usual cast of misfits who assemble, including Oddball (César Sarachu), Janina’s slightly socially awkward neighbour; Dizzy (Alexander Uzoka), a Blake translator enthusiast; and Good News (Weronika Maria), who runs the local shop- all affectionately named by Janina, who doesn’t believe in assigned names but rather assigning them yourself. It is the perfect blend of humour and heart, and each excel in their performances.

The cast of 11, who transform effortlessly between animals, townsfolk and a hooded ensemble are mesmeric. From beating out unnerving rhythms, to captivating scenes acting out eerie animal behaviours, the cast create a fraught atmosphere. Scene changes glide into place often going unnoticed, and the physical theatre is breath taking. Making effective use of minimal, well-chosen props the gravity of the show falls to the poetic prose which fills the stage. Out of the darkness and solitude of one microphone emerges a starkly human tale of empathy, power and morality combined with environmental activism.

Projections compliment the performance, with Janina’s passion for horoscopes and nature becoming something real and tangible. In parts harrowing and terrifying, other images of animals and people flash up and if you were to describe the show as a call to arms against poaching, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. At times taking a philosophical turn, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ asks about power, the abuse of power and nature’s part in everything.

As a whodunnit, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is certainly a refreshing take. An array of compelling characters, captivating theatrical techniques, including spellbinding lighting (Paule Constable) and music (Christopher Shutt), and a slick, effortless script make for a staggering performance. Not only is environmentalism explored, but at the core of the production is a commentary on the nature of human beings and their place in the world. From the ethereal to the sinister, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is triumphant from start to finish.

Words by Hannah Goldswain.

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