Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Barbican review — mischievous, magnificent thriller


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Barbican Theatre

Amanda Hadingue in ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ © Alex Brenner

The house lights are still up when a woman in her sixties, clutching a plastic carrier bag, wanders on to the Barbican stage and taps the microphone speculatively. The audience shifts apprehensively. Is she here to make some sort of emergency announcement?

It seems not. “I want to tell you a story,” she says, before offering some tangential details about washing her feet. So it is that this magnificent Complicité adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead opens. Simon McBurney’s staging immediately sets the tone, finding a supple theatrical equivalent of Tokarczuk’s dazzling, slippery narrative style.

What’s true and what’s not true are soon very much open to question, as Janina (a name she hates) embarks on her wildly idiosyncratic yarn — part murder mystery, part parable, part blazing political manifesto. Her quiet backwater on the Polish-Czech border has become a crime scene, we learn: bodies are mounting up with the frequency of a lurid TV cop show. And Janina has a theory. The victims, all men, all belonged to the local hunt club. It’s obvious to her that the animals are taking revenge. This is a view she has shared with the police — to no avail: they simply reckon she is crazy — and now wants to share with us. How reliable a narrator she is remains to be seen.

Tokarczuk’s brilliant novel is every bit as enigmatic as its protagonist: under cover of a crime thriller, she slips in a subversive slicing and dicing of the patriarchy and a rallying cry for greater environmental awareness. But you barely notice she’s doing it as you fall into stride with her marvellous central character. This is a woman who scarcely registers with those in power, but who is drily funny and sardonic and who articulates a profound, urgent call for a rethink of humanity’s place on the earth. Her affinity with local wildlife, her fascination with astrology, her passion for the work of William Blake and her love affair with an entomologist all add up to a deep sense of the interconnectedness of life.

In McBurney’s production, that inner life leaps out on to the stage, with Dick Straker’s gorgeous video work drenching Rae Smith’s set in star-studded skies, astrology charts and dappled, beetle-inhabited forest floors. We are seeing the world as Janina sees it. Meanwhile a wonderfully versatile ensemble plays both the neighbourhood residents and the local fauna — statuesque, watchful deer; slinky foxes; strutting magpies. The practice of having humans portray animals neatly embodies Janina’s view that the two are equal.

Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Richard Skelton’s music can be menacing, suspenseful or tenderly lyrical. The blurred borders in the novel — between territories, species, literary genres, interior and exterior worlds — translate to stage as a multi-faceted, fourth-wall-breaking spectacle.

At the centre is Janina, eccentric, insistent, mordant, fearless. She’s superbly played by Amanda Hadingue (Kathryn Hunter, with whom she has been sharing the part, was taken ill before the official London opening). The role is a feat of memory to begin with, but Hadingue delivers it with crisp matter-of-factness underscored by burning outrage. There is standout work too from César Sarachu as Janina’s gawky but loveable neighbour, Oddball (very funny when stoned), Tim McMullan as the oleaginous priest and Alexander Uzoka as the gentle student Dizzy with whom Janina translates Blake.

It’s great to have Complicité back at full throttle, with a prime piece of compelling storytelling that uses comic ingenuity, sharp physicality and clever technology to lift a complex, multi-layered novel into vibrant stage life. There’s a sag in energy before the interval, when the weight of incident begins to slow the show’s momentum. And one big narrative twist feels less shocking than in the book.

But this is a beguiling, imaginative piece of theatre, as strange, dark and mischievous as the book. And it demonstrates how powerfully theatre can advocate through artistry. In the book, Janina has a platform; on stage, she has a microphone. A solo read becomes a communal experience, so amplifying the call for a different way of thinking about who is important and about our place in the world.


To April 1,, then on UK and European tour,

In an office, a man stands and pushes another man over a desk while twisting his arm behind his back
Howard Ward, left, and Daniel Rigby in ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ © Helen Murray

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Lyric Hammersmith, London

Another mysterious casualty, another eccentric story and another unconventional narrator and arbiter of justice. But the mood in Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very different. This 1970 farce by Dario Fo and Franca Rame is based on a real-life scandal: the murky death during police interrogation of an Italian railway worker and anarchist.

Tom Basden’s riotous new version brings the satire right up to date and could not be more topical: Daniel Raggett’s staging (a co-production between the Lyric and Sheffield Theatres) arrived in London at the same time as the publication of a scathing independent review of the Metropolitan Police.

The laughs, which are plentiful, come edged with rage: a statistic emblazoned on the set wall at the end informs us that 1,850 people have died in police custody or following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. And Basden’s script is sprinkled with all too recognisable outrages: officers taking selfies with murder victims; dodgy WhatsApp groups.

It’s comedy that is the tool of interrogation here, however, and Raggett and his cast wield it mercilessly. The agent of truth is “the Maniac”, an enigmatic individual who fetches up in a police station accused of impersonation and who proceeds — by impersonating a judge — to run rings round everybody, all the while delivering a running commentary to the audience.

Donning a ludicrous wig, some half-moon spectacles and a gargantuan air of confidence, he manages to hoodwink the none-too-bright officers that he is investigating the suspicious plunge of the anarchist from a fourth-floor window. The more he appears to collude with their ludicrous cover-up, the more he exposes it as a sham. Pretence uncovers pretence, the whole thing delivered with the flourish of a barrister dropping a killer piece of evidence mid-trial. And the grand irony is that, on moral grounds at least, he is indeed their judge.

The linchpin of Raggett’s staging is Daniel Rigby as the Maniac: a human tornado whose pratfalls, clowning and one-liners, delivered at blistering speed, simultaneously stitch up the coppers and leave the audience in stitches. He is well supported by Tony Gardner’s pompous superintendent, Jordan Metcalfe’s bullishly stupid detective and Shane David-Joseph’s hapless constable. A good week for eccentric narrators.


To April 8,

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