A Dark yet Witty Powerful Poetic Tale of Nature and Death
Kathryn Hunter as Janina and cast
Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 22 April.
Review by Alison Manning.
Based on the Nobel prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel and presented by world-renowned theatre company Complicité, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a powerful play that centres around the complex character of Janina Duszejko, a teacher, former bridge builder, animal lover, astrologer, observer and lonely old woman. Strongly played by Kathryn Hunter, Janina narrates the story, partly through a microphone on a stand and partly through partaking in the action, sometimes both at once. Although this narrative style was possibly initially slightly jarring in a theatre setting, we were quickly absorbed into it and immersed into Janina’s story, at times heartfelt and at times suffused with a humorous dry wit.
The other nine actors play all the other characters, alternating between roles of neighbours, friends, police, hunters, children and animals, occasionally embracing the anonymity of long hooded and padded coats, with other costumes cleverly hidden underneath. This interchange of characters works well with the minimum set, mainly consisting of assorted chairs and projections on to a glass screen. The projections are powerful in creating an atmosphere, ranging from snowstorms and stained-glass windows to astrological analysis, as well as reflecting other parts of the action.
Katheryn Hunter plays the role of Janina
The story starts in the depths of winter and is set in a remote place in Poland on the edge of a forest. One neighbour dies and his death is followed by others in the community, all linked by their cruelty to animals and membership of a hunters’ group. The animals seem to be behaving strangely too, with dogs going missing, stags stopping and staring and hoof prints appearing in the snow. Could it be that the animals are taking revenge for the atrocities inflicted on them? We begin to wonder if the eco-systems are reasserting themselves.
The seasons progress but the pace varies, with occasional sudden flashes of light dazzling the audience and indicating an abrupt shift or change in emotion. Sometimes there is a slower pace interspersed with silences, whereas some moments happen in real time and some are speeded up. Sometimes two scenes happen at once, with a retelling of a story, or a contrasting scene intermingled with the original action. Some scenes are realistic, some more surreal, such as the one where Janina imagines unzipping herself and becoming like a jellyfish to ease the pain from her ailments.
Regularly there seem to be actors lying on the stage for one reason or another. The projections also add to the unreal sense of some of the scenes, such as Janina’s apparent hallucination of her mother in the boiler room. The lighting varies a lot as well, creating different moods and atmospheres, from scenes of intense darkness, presumably useful for quick costume changes and position transitions, occasionally penetrated by a single beam of torchlight, to the start of the second half where the houselights initially remained on as a public meeting takes place and it is as if the audience is integrated into the action.
A powerful production
The play is also suffused with the poetry of William Blake, literally on post-it notes attached to the microphone stand, also in Janina’s Polish translations of Blake’s poetry and readings of his letters with a former pupil, as well as in the title itself which is derived from a line from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” These quotations both add a poetic visionary quality to the play and help raise questions of the delicate balance of the relationship between humans and nature.
Janina also has an interest in astrology, keen to read horoscopes of the people around her, particularly interested, it seems, in when and how they might die. She sees the stars and planets as all interconnected with aspects of our lives and that of nature around us. This play could change the way you look at animals. We spotted a pair of foxes on the way home; I couldn’t help seeing them in a new light, wondering what they were up to and how they were connected to us.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is on at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry till Saturday 22 April. More details: https://www.belgrade.co.uk/events/drive-your-plow-over-the-bones-of-the-dead/