This month legendary theatre company Complicté returned to the Barbican with an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s searing novel. Part murder mystery, part dark ecological fable, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is here to ask just how far one should, or could, go to protect their surroundings from men hellbent on power and domination.

Protagonist Janina Duszejko is on a mission, plagued in more ways than one. Unspecified ailments flare at random, her beloved dogs have disappeared, and she seems unable to stop looming threats to the ecosystems around her. She longs to save the local wildlife from a throng of hunters who shoot with abandon and burn the forest. Everyone she turns to in positions of authority – the police, the council, the church – is complacent or overtly complicit. And she also seems to be the only one to notice that the local wildlife has decided to fight back. 

Death appears within the first moments of the show. Janina breaks the fourth wall, reciting William Blake as the lights gently descend, only to be interrupted by a loud, violent knocking. The first dead body has been discovered: a neighbour found with a splinter of bone stuck in his throat. As an older woman, Janina is constantly belittled due to her age and gender, labelled ‘too emotional’ and ‘crazy’ for her beliefs about the local animals exacting revenge. But whilst her pleas are ignored, male hunters continue to turn up dead in mysterious circumstances. It seems nature will demand to be heard.

Complicite & Simon McBurney, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, image credit Marc Brenner

What follows is a deft work of physical theatre, filled with sharp wit and dark humour, alongside occasionally ominous moments and disturbing visions. Set in a kind of liminal space in Lower Silesia, a region that was German until the second world war, filled with abandoned coal mines on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic. Janina lives an isolated rural life between these two countries, just outside the small local town. Her circle is small: a friendly neighbour, a caring doctor, two young companions and the memories of her mysteriously missing dogs. The rest of the area is barren, filled with second homes that lie empty most of the year, with a rich local keen to transform the land into a granite quarry despite the protestations of ‘doom mongers’ and ‘hippies’ (condescending language many of us are all too familiar with).

Masterful physical direction helps the ensemble embody everything from a local police department to mystical creatures, filling this isolated setting with character. Atmospheric lighting, smart stage direction and slick imagery help the minimal staging teem with life. Shadows of hands become deer antlers with the right sliver of light. Ominous black puffer jackets keep uniform anonymity, only to be shed as various characters flicker into view before disappearing back into the crowd. At one point the jackets rise to the sky, images of flying birds projected on them. At another, bright costumes descend in their stead, combined with animal masks for the strangest party you’ll see on stage, despite all the neon. Staging is also stark and alarming at times. Whether a sudden interjection of pounding electro or gunshots, or unexpected flashes of light bright enough to temporarily blind the viewer, there’s always something to throw the audience a little off kilter. It’s a reminder that something isn’t quite right, we just don’t know what it is yet.

Despite the many odious characters Janina comes up against, there are also intimate portraits of her small circle of found family. They offer the suggestion of an alternative way of coexisting within the countryside. Instead of dominating their surroundings, they enjoy life’s small pleasures: translating poetry in the belief it will make the world a better place, observing beetles as they cross the forest floor, creating a cosmic mycelium network of care and community. If it wasn’t for the grounding presence of these people, it would be hard to be on humanity’s side at all.

Complicite & Simon McBurney, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, image credit Marc Brenner

In contrast, hunters enjoy an elevated status in the town, viewed as part of God’s plan. The local priest speaks of a need to control nature through hierarchy and domination, an emblematic microcosm of the systems of supremacy that continue to harm the earth and the marginalised. In reference to Blake’s poetry one character says ‘it’s happening all the time and everywhere’, it’s hard not to see this mirrored in the dark ideas that have caused climate breakdown and destruction across the world, exemplified in the hunting habits of this small community. 

The work expertly walks a fine line, balanced on a knife edge of haunting and hilarious. Language is flowing and lyrical, while imagery is often deeply visceral, constantly reminding us that this is adapted from an incredibly strong novel. Deer, birds, bats, beetles and all manner of other creatures become part of the story, painting a vivid landscape of biodiverse ecosystems struggling to survive in a space the men are trying to wrangle. At one point Janina describes the changing of the seasons, stating ‘everything takes on such depth your eyes are filled with tears’. Yet the men of the town can’t seem to see the value of their surroundings beyond what can be dominated. There’s a lingering sense that this isn’t your typical murder mystery. Maybe nature really is seeking revenge, and maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

It leaves an audience with many questions. What does it mean to be enmeshed in a landscape,and where should humans truly see themselves within it? How do we define destiny? And what role does it play in a world so often abused by human hands?

Recurring ideas of astrology, animism and unreliable narration make this show a hell of a ride. Poetic, tragic, infuriating and infinitely funny; when combined with expert acting and skilful direction and production, this is a masterful adaptation that’s worth every minute.

Learn more about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead here, touring Europe until June 2023