Mark Bibby Jackson reviews Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead at the Barbican Theatre part of its UK and Europe tour.

Somehow I have never seen a Complicité performance. So, as I relax in my comfortable seats at the Barbican I do not quite know what to expect. A woman takes to the stage as if there is a problem with the performance. She reads out an announcement and the play commences. She is no announcer but Janina Duszejko, the lead character in the play that unfolds.

Complicité’s new production of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Nobel prize-winning writer Olga Tokarczuk. It is set in a small community on a remote Polish mountainside, where members of the local hunting club are dying mysteriously. The police suspect it is something to do with the local mafia and drug trafficking, but Janina has other thoughts.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Review
Kathryn Hunter (centre) as Janina Duszejko

An English teacher, environmentalist and astrologer, this woman in her mid sixties believes that the male hunter’s deaths are related to their hunting activities. Is nature reaping its revenge on the hunter?

Tokarczuk told the Guardian in 2022, “The pandemic showed us just how fragile we are, how highly we depend on nature, and that our relationship with it is stronger than we’ve ever imagined.” It is this theme that is central to the play.

But this is only one strata to this complex play.

Janina, played by Kathryn Hunter is central to everything in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. An elderly and somewhat eccentric woman, her views are dismissed far too easily by the male dominated police, as well as the female-led council. This provides a strong feminist, and ageist, message – that we far too easily dismiss the views of elderly women as that of cranks.

However, it is man’s relationship with nature that is at the core of the play. What will be the consequence of our destruction of nature?

While Hunter’s demanding and inspiring performance, laced with dry humour, inevitably takes centre stage, for a first-time Complicité attendee I was equally struck by the physicality of the performance. Almost adopting the role of Greek choric commentators, the cast creates a physical representation of the emotional upheaval experienced by the actors before you. It is quite engrossing.

Tim McMullan in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Tim McMullan in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

However, it is Hunter’s performance that transfixes the audience. From the first awkward moments like a stand-up comic taking the stage she captivates.

Led by director Simon McBurney, artistic director and co-founder of Complicité, the company has created a thought-proving and entertaining piece of theatre that is a lesson for our time.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Will tour the UK (Nottingham, Salford and Coventry) until 29 April, before transferring to Europe until 17 June. Details of all the performances can be found here.

All images: Complicite & Simon McBurney, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, image credit Marc Brenner.