Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead at the Barbican review: a loyal but innovative adaptation

·2 min read
 (Alex Brenner)
(Alex Brenner)

In true Complicité style, the company’s adaptation of Nobel prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel is visually exciting, technologically slick, and deliciously dark. The story revolves around astrology-obsessed, animal-loving Janina, a middle-aged woman living on a mountainside in a remote corner of Poland. When men from the local hunting club begin dropping dead in dramatic fashion, she suggests that the animal community is seeking revenge for their mistreatment – but is repeatedly laughed out of the room for her seemingly crackpot beliefs.

Fans of the novel won’t be disappointed. This is a loyal but innovative adaptation (dramaturgy by Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre and Laurence Cook) that wonderfully brings to life the dry comedy and compelling strangeness of the text – supported, of course, by Amanda Hadingue at the helm, who has stepped in to cover Kathryn Hunter’s unfortunate sudden illness.

Hadingue is intensely watchable, instilling the character with a playful fieriness and wit that puts the audience right in the palm of her hand as she addresses them directly through a centre-stage mic. We’re brought into this world through hereyes, and she only ever relinquishes that storytelling control briefly, to a privileged few. It’s a smart directorial choice that reflects the unreliable nature of the book’s narrative voice.

 (Alex Brenner)
(Alex Brenner)

The ensemble is a small but mighty troupe of physical performers who render animals with their bodies; splayed hands conjure deer’s’ antlers, others frolic, fox-like, over imagined landscapes. Party guests seen through windows, dancing and contorting to thumping music while wearing costume animal heads is a particularly memorable visual; it’s enjoyably eery, and taps into the thematic question of whether animals and humans are really that different. Some ensemble members also take on lynchpin characters – César Sarachu is great as Janina’s awkward but lovable neighbour, Oddball.

Design on all fronts is masterful. Christopher Stutt’s filmic, foreboding sound design, together with a monochromatic stage and icy lighting (design by Paule Constable) do well to immerse us in the setting’s frigid, unforgiving climes. And of course, there’s the Complicité tech-cleverness, with ongoing video projections that convey everything from mountainous landscapes to astrological charts to William Blake quotes to the bleeding bodies of hunted deer.

Despite the warmth and charisma of the central protagonist, this production is decidedly creepy. Dead boars speak through Janina, contorted corpses resurrect to argue their side. Simon McBurney’s direction has rendered this tale into something of a ghost story – an eco-horror, if you will.

Tokarczuk’s novel doesn’t need bringing up to date, as its themes of animal cruelty, climate crisis, misogyny, and religious morality are still fairly pressing (in case you hadn’t noticed). This production leans into those themes, without over-egging it. This has been worth the wait, and is well worth a watch.

Barbican, to April 1;