Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Barbican Theatre

Complicité’s most recent production is haunting me, goading me, calling to me to witness it. Interestingly afterward I did it continues its ghostly persecution as only an eco-murder-mystery or climate-revenge-story can.

I will explain. A close relative (who prefers to stay anonymous in worry of backlash) saw Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (DYPOTBOTD for short) in Plymouth in its developmental stage. Controversially she only managed the first gargantuan act, hence the anonymity. A friend is going to see it in Manchester and many other amigos gloatingly looked at me askance when I mentioned that I haven’t read the book by Olga Tokarczuk.

So, I bit the bullet. That doesn’t mean I was reluctant in any way. Complicité is the creme de la creme of experimental theatre, Kathryn Hunter is one of the most interesting actors of our time, and the Barbican is well.. the Barbican.

First to address the elephant in the room. Hunter was sadly taken ill a day before I tootled myself down to see the show, and Amanda Hadingue took on the demanding lead role. Sharing the part for the rest of the UK tour the London run was designated for Hunter. Hadingue brings a younger, more energetic interpretation of Janina. Despite my yarning to see Hunter in a role she was born to play, the substitution is by no means a deprecation. There, the elephant unmasked.

Admin aside. Welcome to the glowering woods of the Polish/Czech border, and meet our heroine: a cosmology-believing, bridge-building contradictory, and gloriously flawed human. In the rural community, she is the odd old woman, battling against the rampant hunting and environmental ravaging raging around her. Simon McBurney’s embodiment of Tokarczuk’s poetic and brooding novel is extensive. The group devising process crafts a chorus of shadowy threatening figures in hooded parka coats. They’re everything and everyone, the watching animals of the forest and the arguably more feral people of the town. Paule Constable’s shafts of enigmatic lights do most of the scene setting, plenty of projection picks up the rest of the heavy lifting, a polished floor and that’s about it, kids. Set? We laugh in the face of set, set is for the West End, this is experimental don’t you know?

Not much to see here, apart from there very much is. Toby Sedgwick’s movement builds a world of small-town grievances, and isolated lives, along with Hadingue’s constant stream of conscious monologue into a microphone centre stage. A giant sliding what looks like conservatory door doubles the space for the second act. What impresses here is the space given for the writing to expand. Tokarczuk poetry, both her obsession with William Blake, and her own thrilling, entertaining and poignant prose rings clearly throughout. As the bodies of the cast build the landscape of the forest and plateau, her words conjure galaxies and souls swelling in the cosmic mycelium.

Sat in the interval I earwigged on a bunch of GCSE students, talking in impressed and a little too loud tones about the moments that resonated. This underlined the plethora of unusual creative choices and the out of box approach that hive-mind theatre produces.

Undeniably the DYPOTBOTD is about half an hour too long. But the fluidity of chorus movements, morphing into everything from a dead deer to a bookcase plunges you headfirst into a world of dysfunctional adults and snowy winters.

Haunted or hunted are the words that keep reoccurring. The book, and now play is a searing diatribe of humanity’s abusive relationship with the natural world. As a regressed vegetarian, I felt that Hadingue was talking directly to me. Her slamming a boar’s flesh on the table of an apathetic council representative or asking why killing a dog is worse than killing a pig. As if the angel of irony wasn’t quite done with me my walk home took me past the Smithfield temple of torture. As I passed men in white overalls trooped out on the street for a cigarette, splattered with the blood of the animal carcasses defrosting inside. DYPOTBOTD has chased me across the country and now chases me still. It is a production that dares to scream WHY, and a sharpened collective to bring that scream to life. It will stab in your brain like a bullet burrowing slowly deeper. If that isn’t praise, I don’t know what is, thinking about it, is it?