Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Belgrade Theatre – Review

“The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Cassius, Julius Caesar

A cross between Peter Greenaway’s visual style and appreciation of ‘high culture’, plus the conspiratorial observations of Dennis Kelly, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead is Complicité Theatre’s latest touring production. Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney, and based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, Drive Your Plow… is grand in its scope, telling stories within stories – much like the revolutions of the planets as espoused by astrologer Janina Duszejko.

Kathryn Hunter as Janina / All photos © Marc Brenner

Played by Kathryn Hunter, the character of Janina is experienced and complex, having worked in many different disciplines over the course of her life. A former engineer, environmentalist and enthusiastic translator of William Blake, Janina when we meet her is working as an English teacher in a rural Polish school, near the Czech Republic border.

As a character, Janina isn’t ‘held in high esteem’ by everyone in her community. In a town where most of the menfolk are members of the ‘mushroom pickers’ society, or the hunting lodge, Janina’s ‘outspoken’ opinions on hunting and the importance of education over a chapel opening puts her at odds with ‘received wisdom’. Still, Dizzy – one of her ex-students – reguarly visits her to use her as sounding board for translating William Blake (one of her favourite poets) into Polish.

The death of ‘Bigfoot’ – a local hunter – precipitates a wave of fear in the community, as one by one, Bigfoot’s associates die under mysterious circumstances. The one thing each has in common – something that the local authorities refuse to believe at first – is that nature itself is responsible… the animal kingdom is exacting its own justice.

The notion of nature or ‘Gaia’/the Earth striking back at mankind for its abuse of the planet is nothing new in ‘speculative fiction’, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds being one such example. Within the play, hunting indiscriminately is not only condoned, it’s considered a “God-given right” – much like the “divine right of kings” in pre-secular Europe. But as each death bears the fingerprints of ‘nature’s wrath’, red of tooth and claw, the play hints that perhaps Man should re-evaluate the pecking order of the natural world and how it views him – much like Copernicus’ observations about the Sun replaced Earth/Man at the centre of the universe. But I digress.

While the play tonally has some of the trappings of a murder-mystery, there is a political dimension to the proceedings. The patina of the Second World War diffuses the narrative as events and secrets from the past encrouch on the present, waiting to be exposed. The play’s hidden history of eastern Europe, the animal motifs and the antics of the seedy underbelly of society also mirrors Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms. As for the mystery at the heart of Drive Your Plow…, it has more on common with Lizzie Cree in Peter Ackroyd’s The Limehouse Golem than Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

There will no doubt be much praise on Kathryn Hunter’s performance, which is well-deserved. For close to three hours, Hunter keeps the audience engaged as her confidante and our gateway into shining a light on the anti-ecological policies of local government. The production team, especially Dick Straker’s video design, should also be commended.

© Michael Davis 2023

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead ran at Belgrade Theatre on 19 – 22 April. It continues its national and international tour at:

The Lowry, Salford
25 – 29 April

Ruhrfestspiele, Recklinghausen
3 – 6 May

Grand Theatre, Luxembourg
11 – 12 May

10th Theatre Olympics, Budapest
16 – 17 May

Wiener Festwochen, Vienna
22 – 26 May

Holland Festival, Amsterdam
1 – 3 June 2023

L’Odeon, Paris
7 – 17 June

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