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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Co-Commissioned by The Lowry

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The world-renowned international touring company Complicité presents a new work for the theatre, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, directed by Simon McBurney.

Based on Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel of the same name, the darkly comic, anarchic noir caused a seismic reaction in Tokarczuk’s native Poland due to its defiant attack on authoritarian structures, with right-wing press branding the writer an ‘eco-terrorist’ and national traitor.

The story begins in the depths of winter in a small community on a remote Polish mountainside. Men from the local hunting club are dying in mysterious circumstances and Janina Duszejko – an eccentric older local woman, environmentalist, devoted astronomer and enthusiastic translator of William Blake – has her suspicions. She has been watching the animals with whom the community shares their isolated, rural home, and she believes they are acting strangely…

Engaged in fierce resistance against the injustices around her, Janina refuses to be a prisoner of society and gender. Her actions ask questions both of the male world which surrounds her and of our deeper human intentions: what does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be animal, and can we separate the two? Why is the killing of animals sport and that of humans murder?

A thought-provoking, wry and otherworldly murder mystery, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a tale about the cosmos, poetry, and the limitations and possibilities of activism.

“Olga Tokarczuk has created an extraordinary world that speaks to my deepest sense of the continuity between humankind and nature – a world where, like a mycelium web, all entities are connected deeply at the roots, unable to exist alone. Tokarczuk is a prophet for our times who understands us in all our hilarity, messiness, cruelty and animalism, and it is a great privilege to bring to the stage what is surely one of literature’s most urgent accounts of being alive today.” Complicité Artistic Director, Simon McBurney

“A new Complicite show isn’t just a devised play: it’s a theatrical event. At the company’s inimitable best, it is a ticket to another world.” Time Out

“one of the most fully-immersive theatre pieces ever created”

New York Times on Complicité’s award-winning production of The Encounter. 

Runtime - Approx 3 hours


This production includes haze, simulated smoking and drug use, flashing lights, blackouts, jumpscares, loud noises (including gunshots), swearing, some nudity, depictions of death, blood and violence, and the staged mistreatment of animals.

Age Guidance 12+

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ON TOUR

Our review on Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 25th April 2023 by Karen Ryder

Our Rating

Shortlisted for The International Booker Prize in 2019, Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead has been growing a dedicated audience for quite some time, and has gained literary rave reviews since its publication.  An award-winning film adaptation followed, and it has now made its way to The Lowry in its latest offering to the theatre world courtesy of the ground breaking theatre company Complicité.  Written by Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk, this supernatural style thriller is in the best of hands with Complicité, who have an outstanding reputation for staging the unstageable and delivering their own special kind of magic.  Directed by Simon McBurney, this production will plough its way through your mind as it offer thrills, suspense, and a masterclass in acing and stagecraft.

Janina Duszejko lives a simple life in a rural Polish village, where she enjoys translating poetry into English and studying astrology.  She has a neighbour, Big Foot, of whom she is not a fan as he is a hunter, and after her two dogs went missing, she has never quite trusted him.  But one day, he is discovered dead in his home.  As Janina’s mind starts to try and solve the mystery, she convinces herself that perhaps the animals killed him out of revenge.  The police understandably don’t agree with her theory, but when their Commandant, who is also a hunter, turns up dead, Janina is more convinced than ever.  As more and more people who treat animals disrespectfully turn up dead, all eyes start to turn towards Janina, especially as she has an outburst at a Priest who condones hunting in his sermon, who – yes you guessed it, later turns up dead.  But a hidden mystery within a photograph discovered at Big Foot's house holds more clues than anyone realised, and with an unexpected outcome at the end of the story, you will be left questioning who is right, who is wrong, and how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in?

This show is overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word.  It truly is a spectacle, and the production value evokes an emotional response that arises just from the sheer wow factor.  It isn’t one element that impresses, but rather a stunning dance and marriage between everyone involved, from design, to light, sound, visuals, actors, costume, all of it.  Simple structures appear seemingly from thin air through the slow and controlled grace of the actors.  Digital /video scenery by Dick Straker is incredible and with the use of a back screen that has a clear wall in front of it which is surrounded by a proscenium arch, these projections are able to be played around with in a way I have never seen before, creating an almost 3D effect.  Even the actors themselves are projected onto and so as they slowly and purposefully move forward, it seems they are bringing the wall of images with them.  It’s outstanding.  Nightmares are relived and ghosts haunt us, yet the most serene night skies envelop not only the cast but us as well. 

Lighting by Paule Constable manipulates the atmosphere from fearsome thrills and quick fire, shock lighting, to playing with our fear of the unknown by allowing the action to play out in a not quite darkness.  Even the lights in the auditorium are controlled to unimaginable effect, plunging us into darkness at will and fuelling the adrenaline of this primed audience.  The sound created by Christopher Shutt is so cinematic, strong, and evocative that it felt like a new form of digital foley artist has almost been invented for the theatre.  Gun shots, screams, echoes, and creaking doors, sit happily alongside the booming base of a party, which is so perfectly pitched it even diminishes as the action moves outside of the room.  The set by Rae Smith masters simplicity with its multiple and convincing use of every day items such as chairs, coats, tables, and pillows, to create everything needed in this play with numerous and diverse locations.  Everything about this creative team is expertly executed.

The main character Janina is brought to life by Olivier award winner Kathryn Hunter.  Wow.  The entire play is basically built around this character, with monologues galore and her leading the entire story.  She embodies this complex and paradoxical character with such natural vigour, that we become fully invested in her grief, her plight, her anger, her charm, her humour, so much so that we do not see the truth of what lies behind it.  She brilliantly captures the essence of humanity, that we are not all good or bad, but instead portrays how it could be so easy to walk a fine line of somewhere in between for what we believe to be the greater good.  Her eccentricity is bountiful and captured through such physical detail that you forget you are watching an actor and not just someone on stage chatting to you.  The amount of script she remembers is remarkable and makes me question how I can’t even remember what I went in the kitchen for!

Alexander Uzoka and César Sarachu play Janina’s friends Dizzy and Oddball and create such opposing quirky characters that have you belly laughing, cringing, and empathising with in equal measure.  But the entire cast are a brilliant unit and as awe inspiring as Kathryn Hunter unquestionably is, this show would not work without them.  They allow the show to have a natural ebb and flow, enable it to breathe flawlessly and maintain the smoothness that we feel throughout.  Acting almost as a traditional Greek chorus, they represent everyone, and everything needed, from animal to mineral.  Yet they merge this old theatre style with such a modern agility that it feels entirely fresh and as if this was how theatre was always meant to be.  They often appear as a tribe of hooded figures, hiding in the dark shadows of the world, keeping secrets, emitting an ever present uncertainty and fear, never knowing when they might pounce.   

Actors break the fourth wall by talking directly to us, jumping in and out of the story as they do so.  They even join us in the audience!  Time takes us back and forth between past, present, and memory, and actors portray the animals with inventive and intriguing clarity, mixing physicality with digital imagery.  The use of the human form rather than puppets to portray the animals mirrors Janinas vision of a world of equality and of animal rights being equal to human rights.  Coats are lifted up into the air, submersed in digital imagery of crows taking flight, making it seem like they are actually taking flight.  Books are manipulated so that their pages flap and become a host of birds.  Poetic quotes are projected onto the screen like gun shots for emphasis, with piercing and heart thumping sound effects to accompany it.  Humour is woven into the dark corners of the story through witty dry one liners and recognisable observations such as TS (testosterone Syndrome, to which a detailed description is given and recognised by many females in the audience!)  Humour is also used for tension relief such as the stoned scene where the three characters hopelessly try to remember the words and sing along to their favourite song.  Then you are whipped back again to the serious underlying messages of the story through the irony and shielded guise of a politician trying to get himself elected.

It is no wonder that Complicité have won over 50 major theatre awards worldwide.  Their work redefines theatre and shifts the traditional dynamic between audience and performer in a way I have never experienced before.  Artistic director and co-founder Simon McBurney’s direction has ensured the themes of animal rights, misogyny, religion, and climate control are explored in a non-preachy, quirky manner, and invite you to listen, absorb, and digest without choking on the bones.  I had no idea what to expect from Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead, yet I got far more than I ever imagined was on offer.  It has a style and energy all of its own and all I could hear on the way out from the audience was superlatives, and a sense that whether you viewed this as a creepy gothic tale, a political call to arms, a quirky and witty outlook on extreme activists, or just a tale about a lonely and damaged old lady, everyone agreed with every malleable interpretation on offer because it is one and all of these things.  This is a production that we will all still be happily mulling over for the foreseeable.    


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