Touring – reviewed at the Bristol Old Vic
A Complicite show is event theatre. Previous works such as A Disappearing Number, An Encounter and The Master and Margarita are locked in a pantheon of the great works of my lifetime. They produce the kind of mind-bending excellence that explores theatre at its most challenging and intellectually stimulating. They have been offered creative homes across the world and have been awarded numerous theatrical prizes from the establishment. As the great Emma Thompson has been quoted as saying, they are genuine theatrical trailblazers. So, it’s no surprise to learn that I admired their latest work Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead immeasurably. What I didn’t do, was fall for it.
A theatrical adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 Polish mystery novel, which received an International Man Booker Prize nomination in 2019 following its translation into English, the book’s themes around environmentalism, valuing human life over animals, forming our community, feels as pertinent now than it did when it was published. A Polish Miss Marple, Tokarczuk’s (anti) heroine Janina begins her investigation into the deaths of the hunting community in her hometown. Could she be right in her assertion that the animals are taking revenge on those who bleed them for their sport?
The extraordinary Kathryn Hunter takes on the role of Janine, the William Blake sprouting philosopher who rallies against a society that fails to acknowledge her views. Like Blake, there is something of the mystic in Janie as indeed there is in Hunter, an other-worldly presence, whose small stature is wielded like a weapon, and whose gravelly voice gives her the pull of a deity.
Hunter has always fared best as the embittered outsider, think of her Timon or Lear rallying against the dying of the light, and again here, as the ensemble tower over her clad in black, we see the fate of the older women, overlooked by the society around her.
Theatre is all about offering the extraordinary on stage and Hunter is an artist of powerful magnetism. Her performance makes you wish that theatre created more roles for women in their artistic prime, a lifetime of work coalescing into a brilliant present.
Simon McBurney’s production is beautifully executed, from Paule Constable’s brutalist lighting design of monochrome spots and blindingly violent flashes of light to Dick Straker’s video design, showing flashes of quotations from Blake’s works alongside sketches of crime scenes, though the reflection of the auto-cue is an unfortunate distraction.
Each action is elegantly staged by McBurney, a dark, gothic echo chamber of a painting, but at three hours it begins to feel like an endurance test. A book can be luxuriated in, a certain sentence or paragraph re-read for understanding or to breathe in its rolling cadences. Here it just keeps coming for you, a bombardment of words and ideas, metaphysical questions, and spiritual quotations. The pace never lets up and it begins to strangle the air out of the piece.
The reveal of the mystery when it comes feels anticlimactic and the relationships between Janie and her group of misfits haven’t built up enough for us to feel the confusion and betrayal. Ultimately theatre must hold head and heart in its embrace. Here, the head is given a workout, but the heart doesn’t break a sweat. One to admire but not quite to love.
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead plays at Bristol Old Vic until February 11 and then tours