Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

19th to 22nd April 2023

Olga Tokarczuk | Belgrade Theatre | Directed by Simon McBurney

The animal kingdom stages a collective, murderous uprising in Complicité’s disarming and dream-like adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s genre-defying novel, directed by Simon McBurney.

An article in the programme for this curiously titled play suggests ‘you might even leave the theatre a vegetarian?’ A bold claim. Whilst I have not become an overnight vegetarian since seeing the opening night production at Coventry’s Belgrade theatre, something has changed: I am struggling with the idea that I am clearly an appalling hypocrite.

I am a mass of contradictions when it comes to animals: an adoring dog owner who delights in tucking into a juicy steak. Whilst elements of ‘Drive Your Plow’ didn’t quite work (it could benefit from a few judicious cuts to bring down the running time) something about it has absolutely stayed with me. In some unsettling, ambiguous way it has forced me to confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about my attitudes towards animals and the natural world more widely.

Kathryn Hunter’s performance as Janina Duszejko (a former engineer, environmentalist, devoted astrologer and enthusiastic translator of William Blake) is disarming in its naturalism. She speaks to us mainly at a fixed microphone at the front of the stage. She is both outside and within the story at the same time. She is everywhere at once. She is narrator, character, chorus and cosmos. And she is angry.

The story begins in a remote mountainside Polish village in the depths of winter, as men from the local hunting club begin to die in mysterious circumstances. Janina Duszejko has her suspicions. She has been watching the animals with whom the community shares their isolated, rural home, and she believes they are acting strangely. The investigations into these mysterious deaths provide the narrative focus for an exploration of what it means to be human and share our planet.

Described as a “philosophical and poetic murder mystery” the play is billed as a “rallying cry for nature and a love-letter to the poetry of Blake.” It is certainly poetic: so much of the language is richly lyrical and the projections of quotations from Blake (“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage”) underscore the message that our treatment of other life on earth has consequences, perhaps divine ones.

It is often beautiful. We are shown close up images of animals and vast moving snapshots of the galaxy: giant projections at the back of the stage transport us beyond the confines of earth into the heavens and back again. It’s hard not to feel that we are connected to something much bigger than ourselves. It is somehow simultaneously intimate and epic.

The straightforward and honest way in which the reclusive crank Janina nicknames the people in the community with the first thing that comes into her head (Big Foot, Oddball, Dizzy, Good News), highlights how, conversely, we often use language to distance ourselves from the realities of our daily lives. Pork, not pig. Beef, not cow. How many of us would instantly become vegetarians if we had to kill the animals we eat?

Complicité is one of Europe’s leading theatre companies, clearly reflected in the high calibre of the actors in the cast supporting Kathryn Hunter. ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is the latest in a series of projects that urgently address the destruction of the planet. If any art form can galvanise support for environmental activism, it is theatre. Storytelling is a powerful tool and this curious, thought provoking, spiky play feels important. I was delighted to see so many students in the audience: this is exactly the kind of work a new generation of theatregoers need to see.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is playing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry from 19th to 22nd April 2023.

Drive Your Plow