17 March 2023
DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD (Barbican Theatre) Review
Kathryn Hunter is an indisputable star. Though I missed her in King Lear last year, I did see her in “The Chairs” (which was also a Complicité production) and loved her performance to bits. In “Drive Your Plow…” she is front and centre literally: the majority of the 3h play is spent with Hunter standing in front of a microphone and talking into it. The play is 90% monologue, and she is narrating the whole show: I went, I did, I saw…. It felt different, and I can’t think of anything else I’d seen similar to that, but it also wasn’t to my liking… I wanted to see Hunter act, not partake in a one-woman show extravaganza with backup players.
I haven’t read the book, though knew the plot going into the show, so don’t know how much of this production was the text vs. Simon McBurney’s interpretation. The story is the 2008 novel by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature) and centres on a woman named Janina (Hunter) who lives in a rural Polish village, makes astrological charts, and believes that nature will take revenge on humans for all of mankind’s abuses toward animals. When unexplained things start to happen in the village, no one takes Janina and her reasoning seriously. That’s more or less it (sans key plot points and twists).
At almost 3 hours long, with Hunter monologuing most of it, it’s entirely too long. It’s difficult to stay interested and engaged. What makes it worse are the incredibly bright flashes of light against a pitch-black stage. It is physically painful due to both contrast and intensity, and then it takes a minute before it’s even possible to focus back on the play. I sort of get it why McBurney might want to punctuate some scenes, but the way it’s done is much too much.
The visuals are beautiful. The way the humans transform into animals, the way everyone moves, the bits of humour injected into physical performances of the supporting cast, who are all excellent, all elevate the play. The “acted” scenes are so wonderfully alive and full of energy, that I kept wanted to have the whole story played out in front of me rather than narrated. I understand that a good chunk of the book is rooted in Janina’s inner thoughts, but it feels like a cheap trick to just read it on stage rather than adapt it for the stage. Even so, Hunter is captivating, and it’s her quality of acting (rather than the adaptation) that keeps the audience in their seats.
I will also complain, as I always do, about the Covid jokes, given the book predates the pandemic by more than a decade. It seems lazy to use Covid as a way to bond with the audience, doubly so because McBurney did the exact same thing in “The Chairs”, so that’s two for two.
On balance, the story is interesting, the theme is relevant and important, the acting is top notch, but the play swings wildly in draining the energy out of the room and then injecting bits of it back. But a chance to see Hunter on stage is certainly not to be missed.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £4.
P.S.: I remember hearing last year that Hunter had dropped out of the show, so it was very exciting when she rejoined. Sadly, a few days after seeing the show, I found out that her stepping away originally was due to the actor Marcello Magni, her husband (and co-founder of Complicité), dying of cancer in September. I loved him in “The Chairs” last February! Sad I had no idea, but feel privileged to have seen him in that production.