One of the things about being a reviewer is that you can appear to be extremely knowledgeable when in fact you’ve just mugged up on Wikipedia. And that’s me now. I’d never heard of the book on which this extraordinary theatre piece is based, nor the writer Olga Tokarczuk even though she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018.
I had heard of Theatre de Complicité and its begetter Simon McBurney, a theatrical polymath whom you may have seen in the Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. McBurney’s theatre work exists to break boundaries and explore new ways of telling stories, particularly with regard to new technology, and so it is here. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a dazzling series of technological coups. It is, of course, much more than that, but you can’t help going ‘wow’, and ‘how did they do that?’ and ‘what’s going on over there that I’m not seeing because I’m looking over here’.
Being the great storyteller that he is, director McBurney starts small. The play, all three hours of it including a 20-minute interval, is narrated by long-time McBurney collaborator Kathryn Hunter, who plays the heroine, Janina. Hunter comes onto a dark stage and stands at the microphone and begins. Hunter herself is tiny, which makes the dark shapes one begins to notice looming behind her even more menacing. Gradually they resolve themselves into deer, policemen, neighbours and so on, each transition achieved invisibly like a magical transformation. This kind of magic inhabits the whole show, physical and character transformations achieved before you notice they have happened. It is consummate stagecraft.
The show is a murder story – a multiple murder story in which a number of important local men in this isolated Polish community die inexplicable deaths. They are all hunters. When the first man dies it appears accidental, but the second death convinces Janina that the animals are getting their revenge and so she reports it to the police. It spirals from there to a surprising conclusion, and is likely to turn you vegetarian, if you aren’t already.
As the plot develops so does the staging, becoming increasingly complex, with technology layering effect on effect, sound and light and projection and probably new stuff I don’t know about. It ends in an awesome climax. I use that word in its correct sense – something inspiring awe – and not for a perfectly ordinary item chosen from a menu.
All this stuff costs money. While there are 11 people on stage, a further 24 are credited as creatives and 23 in production, never mind management. Complicité is funded by ACE and this production has a number of private benefactors. Good. The whole team have made a great night out, and pushed the borders of what we can expect to see on stage – as long as companies have the money.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is astonishing. Go and see it. You only have until Saturday.
Main image: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, (c) Marc Brenner
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is at The Lowry, Salford until April 29, 2023. For more information, click here.