Being cast alongside Kathryn Hunter can’t be an easy job for an actor. I speak here not of her personality – of which I hear only only positive reports. I refer to Hunter’s remarkable capacity to inhale the air from all four corners of the auditorium then to breathe it back, heated to a temperature that might surely bake loaves, or roast… well, in this case, we must say, roast vegetables, for Janina Duszejko (Hunter’s character in this production by Complicité) loves animals as much as humans, and would never kill or eat one.
Towering beneath the rest of the cast (she is 5ft tall), Hunter’s stage presence is a benign dragon, gathering in and hoarding our attention like a stash of gold coins. Even were you immune to her spell (and how could you be?), the excited, reverential tones of the drama students (they are out in force for her) would leave you in no doubt: she is a theatrical phenomenon.
Adapted from the 2009 novel by Polish Nobel prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk, “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” opens with Hunter, plastic carrier bag in hand, strolling up to a mic stand, centre-stage. In her trademark gruff yet somehow tender drawl, she begins by testing our knowledge of the poetry of William Blake, before offering to tell us a story. Barely has this tale begun, than she is interrupted by persistent hammering at her door. It is her neighbour, Oddball, come to tell her he has discovered the body of another neighbour – the unrepentant hunter, Big Foot. While feasting on part of a deer he had cruelly snared and slaughtered, Big Foot, it seems, choked on a bone. By the time the local police arrive, Janina (she hates her name) has discovered a distressing photograph in one of Big Foot’s pockets, and hidden it in a pocket of her own.
As the action progresses, other keen hunters are found dead – the police commandant, and a local businessman and brothel owner called Innerd. In these later cases, murder rather than mishap is the cause. As the (human) bodies begin to pile up, to the more open-minded (or active of imagination), the evidence seems to suggest that the animals themselves are taking revenge.
From the beginning, Janina is alone in this rural part of Silesia, not far from the border with the Czech Republic. She mourns the loss of her “daughters’ (her two dogs) and is mocked by police and condemned by clergy, for caring as much about animals as humans. A firm believer in horoscopes and increasingly admiring of William Blake (thanks to her former student, Dizzy, who worships him), Janina’s distance from her fellow humans (underlined by her habit of calling them only by nicknames) is only breached by the arrival of Czech entomologist, Boros.
Boros’s adoration of the subjects of his study (endangered species of forest insect) convinces Janina they are kindred spirits, but after a brief romance, he returns home and they drift apart. More murders follow – again of devotees of the hunt. Who or what is responsible?
Complicité’s production, directed by Simon McBurney, gives us (as is usual for them) more for the head than the heart. Rather than a wholehearted dramatisation, we have a narrated Whodunit. There is much to think about, courtesy of Hunter’s compelling delivery of Tokarczuk’s seductive language (even in translation) and the ethical questions of the tale (often framed by quotations from Blake’s letters).
This is not to say that the eye is neglected by Rae Smith’s design, Paula Constable’s lighting and Dick Straker’s impressive video backdrops (the animated astrological charts are particularly eye catching). There are times when the incidental music smothers Hunter’s narration (though I suspect this might be less of a problem in the central blocks of the auditorium: the Lyric’s dead acoustic carries peculiar challenges for visiting sound engineers).
This is an unrelenting performance from an exceptional performer. It is more than just a feat of memory – though that it undeniably is. Hunter holds the stage almost throughout the 2 hours 40 minutes running time (fear not, there’s a 20 minute interval about 100 minutes in). Moreover, her character delivers 90% of the dialogue. Epic, mesmeric storytelling. Keep an eye on the carrier bag.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is at The Lowry, Salford from 25-29 April 2023. Age guidance 12+