DramaFeaturedNorth WestReview

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Olga Tokarczuk

Director: Simon McBurney

Some of the British press have recently expressed outrage at environmental activists disrupting sporting events as part of their protests. Such media would really take the huff about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead which does not even try to take a balanced approach to the subjects of ecocide and animal welfare. The play cannot, however, be dismissed as the viewpoint of extremists being adapted from a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author by Complicité, one of most imaginative companies currently treading the boards.

Janina Duszejko (Kathryn Hunter) lives in rural village in Poland. She has a variety of interests and professions including engineering, astrology, and environmentalism. When Janina’s neighbours, who happen to be members of a hunting society, begin to die of strange causes – choking on a deer bone- she puts forward the theory they have been killed by animals as a form of vengeance. However, the community begins to wonder about Janina’s involvement in the deaths.

Theatre companies often take an over-cautious approach when adapting books to the stage, content to ensure key scenes are included so as not to offend fans of the novels. Although respectful of the source material, Simon McBurney, who conceived and directed the play, takes a bracingly radical approach to the adaptation, filtering events through the subjective perception of the central character Janina Duszejko.

This places enormous demands upon Kathryn Hunter, on-stage throughout the entire play and serving as a somewhat unreliable narrator. Hunter speaks in a rapid Groucho Marx style but the effect, although occasionally funny, is not simply comedic. Hunter’s dry, witty observations are conspiratorial; she disturbingly draws the audience into the worldview of a character who, however sympathetic, is an extremist and, it could be argued, is taking revenge rather than serving a moral purpose.

Other members of the cast unselfishly provide a range of supporting characters for Hunter or establish tableaux against which actions take place. The staging of the play is fragmented – as Janina’s recollections jump from one event to another the cast form a suitable background adopting the pose of people in a photograph or as animals. It makes for an uneasy, disconcerting play. It is not entirely accurate to say the set is designed by Rae Smith as from time to time the cast become part of the set or serve as stage props – forming an intimidating block towering threateningly over the diminutive Hunter. Events constantly break off, interrupted by blasts of heavy-metal music or stark black-and-white images of animals in distress projected onto a rear screen. Although Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has an intimate feel the play makes full use of all the space allowed by the massive Lyric stage at The Lowry.

The atmosphere is physically and mentally dark and the mood is confrontational. The lighting is constantly swamped in shadow except the opening to both acts which begin with the house lights left up. The show begins disarmingly with Hunter in casual clothing and carrying what could be (but it turns out is not) her daily shopping in a carrier bag wandering on stage as if for a light chat. Anyone arriving back late for act two finds themselves facing the entire cast judgementally staring back at them. The confrontational tone carries forward into the script challenging perceptions of the relationship between humans and animals/nature and the acceptable behaviour of authority figures. Ironically, however, the play is so intoxicating it is easy to become absorbed in just watching and enjoying the event rather than considering the political message.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has moments of indulgence – a scene of characters smoking a joint and the recipe for mustard soup do not seem all that necessary. But in the main this is a stunning demonstration of what can be, but rarely is, achieved in theatre.

Rubs until 29 April 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Stunning Achievement

Show More
Photo of The Reviews Hub - North West

The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

Related Articles

Back to top button
The Reviews Hub