We went to see the stage adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk's eco-thriller 'Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead'.
The new theatrical adaptation of Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel 'Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead' is a dizzying masterpiece, sewing together the many themes of the original book into a spellbinding night out.
Currently playing at the Barbican in London, UK, theatre company Complicité’s adaptation will go on to tour other UK cities before reaching Germany, Luxembourg, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, and France.
On the night I went to see Drive Your Plow, Tokarczuk herself was in the audience to witness how Complicité, helmed by director Simon McBurney, turned the dense novel into a sub-three-hour play.
Set in a Polish countryside village near the border of Czechia, Drive Your Plow follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly semi-retired teacher. The forthright eccentric Janina lives among a cohort of other oddballs in her remote community. There’s Oddball himself, the nickname she gives her equally eccentric neighbour, as well as other colourful characters like the William Blake fanboy Dizzy and the beetle-obsessed entomologist Boros.
If at first the setting seems like a charming backdrop for pensioner comedy, that impression quickly changes when the first of multiple dead bodies shows up. Someone or something is picking off the men of this rural haven. The murders all target villagers who have been cruel to animals and Janina becomes dead set on a theory. The animals are taking revenge. What’s more, Janina’s two dogs have gone missing.
Complicité and McBurney have made their name for their complex literary theatrical adaptations, taken from page to stage through a company-wide devising process.
The emphasis on devised theatre is evident here. No writer is credited beside Tokarczuk and much of the play’s dialogue comes from Janina as she speaks candidly to the audience, likely using many lines directly lifted from the original novel.
Played eloquently and empathetically by Amanda Hadingue, stepping in for Kathryn Hunter due to illness on the night I attended, Janina’s monologue to the audience is seamlessly interspersed by an incredibly creative multimedia theatrical production.
Janina breaks from her narration to interact with actors playing Oddball, Boros, Dizzy, and a litany of other unique characters, including charity shop owner Good News, hunter Big Foot, brothel owner Innerd, and mushroom foraging club president, The President. But beyond the characters, the ensemble also uses physical theatre to embody animals, the environment and cosmic bodies. Bare yet ingenious staging brings the desolate rural setting to life, as projections and video content paint on extra layers of meaning.
Drive Your Plow has been described as a noir eco-thriller, a fitting genre given the overarching murder plot against the backdrop of animal cruelty. The novel is so much more than that though. It’s a yearning tale of downtrodden weirdos living at the edge of society and rebelling cynicism through their worldly cares. For Boros it’s his beetles, Dizzy has William Blake, and for Janina it is a love of animals as equal to humans. A deep-seated animalist and humanist, she has utter faith in the divinity of everything, placing great importance on horoscope readings.
What makes the Complicité adaptation of Drive Your Plow so impressive is it doesn’t distil or remove any of the novel’s expansive themes. Through jaw-dropping theatrical devices to the raw pulsating vividness of Tokarczuk’s original writing, the Silesian countryside comes to life as the setting for a gripping thriller, and a life-affirming existential howl.
Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature. For anyone even slightly interested in her literary talent, this new stage adaptation is a must see.