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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Complicité, Barbican review - murder in the forest | reviews, news & interviews

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Complicité, Barbican review - murder in the forest

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Complicité, Barbican review - murder in the forest

The veteran theatre company tackles a rich and passionate novel

During the Mushroom Pickers Ball

Complicité, the adventurous theatre company led today by Simon McBurney, one of its founders, is now 40. Over the last four decades, McBurney and his collaborators have changed the face of theatre.

Rooted in the training of Jacques Lecoq, along with Robert Lepage, Ariane Mnouchkine and others, they have created work that combines poetry and intelligence, illuminating the stage in a way that combines the inspiration of the best story-telling with the play of the imagination.

Their latest show, rich and multi-layered – perhaps a little too much so – is based on a wonderful and passionate novel by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. It touches on matters of the utmost importance. Janina, a woman who lives alone in the forest, close to the animals and trees, is driven by fury at the men who hunt wild boar, deer, pheasants, and other creatures. The show builds slowly, the mystery of the beginning slowly infolding in mostly tragic revelation. One by one, the local worthies who take pleasure in killing are themselves brutally murdered, apparently picked off by their forest-dwelling victims, in an act of brutal revenge that mirrors Nature’s revolt against humanity’s wish to exploit and subjugate her.

Janina (Amanda Hadingue and Boros (Johannes Flaschberger)Janina, along with the writer who invented her, imagines our lives as driven by forces at the heart of the cosmos, with a poetic vision of the world best explained by astrology: a world in which we are all, for better or worse interconnected, with humanity as part of the intelligence of nature not as a manipulative agency outside it. The title of the book and show is drawn from William Blake, whose mysticism radiates through the story, not least his central notion that macrocosm and microcosm mirror each other – the idea that the then universe is contained in a grain of sand.

The complex character of Janina, a fierce fighter but acutely sensitive, a passionate loner with a paradoxical need for love and relationship, is wonderfully brought to life by Amanda Hadingue, who hardly leaves the stage for the two-hour duration of the show. She replaced Kathryn Hunter as understudy in the role and acquitted herself very well at short notice. Janina is surrounded by allies: a former student Dizzy (a touching rendition by Alexander Uzoka), who’s translating Blake into Polish, a second-hand clothes dealer Good News (Weronika Maria), and her somewhat autistic neighbour Odball (a touching portrayal by César Sarachu).  Janina’s cohorts, in wonder at her uncompromising anger, stand by and support, with a devotion and love that grows as the story unfolds.

And the villains, too, who fall one by one in mysterious circumstances, embody the arrogance and entitlement of the small-town male. The worst is probably the priest (suitably odious in Tim McMullan’s interpretation) , the smooth-tongued purveyor of a religion that claims the whole of nature as the male Christian God and humanity’s domain. It’s not surprising that Olga Tokarczuk’s work has been vilified by the powerful Polish Catholic establishment. The hunters’ “pulpits”, from which the animal-murderers can take pot-shots at everything that moves, echo the watchtowers of the death camps but also the place from which the unctuous man of the cloth preaches his so-called wisdom. A mixture of video projection and live action in which members of the company provide a third and menacing dimension to the tower, raising a pyramid of chairs, evokes humanity’s visceral lust for domination most powerfully.

The potential of the imagination is central to the mise-en-scène, the hallmark of Complicité’s work and indeed of the best story-telling tradition. Through often breath-taking use of video design, by regular collaborator Dick Straker and sound design by Christopher Shutt. There are a few moments of confusion when the lighting seems a little insufficient: figures on the stage half-disappear into the darkness, creating distraction rather than mystery, but this may be intentional, an attempt to evoke the obscurity of the natural world at night. More generally though, the visual and audio effects create a magical otherworldly atmosphere that changes from one instant to the next, as when the stage morphs seamlessly from the inside of a church, to a prison and then a hospital ward.

At a ghastly Mushroom Pickers' Ball – which brings together hunters as well as gatherers, the townspeople don animal masks that make them monstrous rather than incarnating the true nature of the beasts in the forest. The dancing starts in the foreground, and then melts away magically behind a screen, the sound of the frantic dance music muted, so that we focus on emerging drama front-of-stage.  The flow of settings and images is never random and serves the central theme of connectedness that grows in clarity and intensity. There is indeed, as in so much of Complicité’s work, a reflection in the character of the theatre we witness of the embattled position of poetry and the imagination in a world that promotes power, control, materialism and manipulation.

The central theme of interconnectedness has made for a marvellously multi-dimensional show, but the layering and cross-referencing felt at times seems counter-productive – though maybe it’s asking too much of a delightfully poetic piece of theatre to always be crystal- clear: Janina’s mother appears several times in her visions, often in video projection, and in the midst of raging fire.  Was this, I wondered, an allusion to the Holocaust? It is clear that the character of Dr Ali, a persecuted Algerian refugee who looks after Janina with kindness and attention, evokes the cruel and prejudiced treatment of outsiders from outside the Polish nation; it allows us to witness the extent of Janina’s woundedness. But might this be one layer too many?

Janina may be a consummate outsider, ostracised by the mainstream of society, but once she meets a kindred spirit, in the shape of Boros, a wandering entomologist and specialist in an endangered form of bark beetle, the passion of her struggle on behalf of the animals finds a different focus. The sensitivity that has manifested in illnesses of various kinds grows finds a channel of expression through intimacy. The man she grows to love is played with wonderful sympathy by Johannes Flaschberger (pictured above), a perfect match for an embattled forest-loner. One of the show’s most magical moments brings together Janina, Boros and her neighbour Oddball, as they share a joint under a sky in which the thousands of twinkling night stars above are in constant movement: a beautifully realised moment of visual magic.

Later the wonder of the sky is evoked once again in a deeply moving finale, this time with astrological charts whirling in the sky, the characters in the story tracing a circle below, their lives in tune again with the drama of the cosmos, in life and in death, in a way that affirms transcendence, and makes for a deeply stirring and thought-provoking piece of theatre

One by one, the local worthies who take pleasure in killing are themselves brutally murdered


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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