Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Review

directed by Simon McBurney


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, directed by Simon McBurney, is inspired by Olga Tokarczuk’s novel-fable, and affirms the deep links between nature and humanity. The rich use of light and video projections enables the show to avoid the formidable trap of an overly illustrative adaptation.

Sur les ossements des morts


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: a plea for life

Can animals, victims of human violence, decide to take revenge? The macabre events that occur in the isolated village in southern Poland where she lives lead the heroine to ask herself this question. Janina Doucheyko is a former engineer who now spends her time between teaching English to schoolchildren and drawing up horoscopes. This woman in her sixties collects dates of birth and death. She draws up diagrams that are supposed to determine a person’s time of death. Neighbours and local officials die in mysterious ways. Janina, a fervent defender of the animal cause, becomes convinced that the animals are punishing those who hunt and slaughter them. The investigation begins with a mixture of humour and horror.

« I am now at such an age and in such a state of health that I should remember to wash my feet thoroughly before going to bed, in case an ambulance comes for me in the middle of the night ». It is with this confession, tinged with intimate derision, that the novel, On the Bones of the Dead, by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, opens. The title is inspired by a line by the English poet William Blake: « Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ». This line is taken from Proverbs from Hell, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793).

Simon McBurney‘s adaptation is faithful. The heroine’s fighting, facetious voice is emphasised on stage. Perhaps a little too much so.


Violence and fantasy

For Simon McBurney, it was important that the voice of this committed woman should be heard. Narration is therefore at the heart of the show. A microphone sits front and centre on the stage. As soon as the auditorium was lit up, a woman entered and took hold of it. « I want to tell you a story… » she says. The first-person account is that of the heroine, Janina Doucheyko, formidably played by Amanda Hadingue. Whole chunks of Olga Tokarczuk‘s novel are told and re-enacted in front of an audience. The central, static position of the actress-narrator creates a great sense of stillness. The scenes evoked are regularly translated physically by collective movements or the gestures of the other actors, often reduced to anonymous silhouettes. This doubling of the message through simple illustration is somewhat disappointing.

Fortunately, the work on lighting (Paule Constable), sound (Christopher Shutt) and video (Adam Smith) gives the show the strength and dreamlike quality it lacks. Powerful flashes cut through the various tableaux. They deliberately blind the audience, as if to awaken the consciousness of those watching. Resounding sounds often double the dazzling flashes. Gunshots sound like the fatal blasts of a tragedy in the making. The violence against the animals, hunted, butchered and devoured, overflows the stage.

At the same time, images are projected onto the screen at the back of the stage, conjuring up a phantasmagorical elsewhere. A stylised forest, the mother’s face, animal corpses lined up in a row, a church nave, a starry sky, moving images of horoscopes, follow one another in an aesthetic that is both expressionist and dreamlike.

Simon McBurney brings Olga Tokarczuk’s novel-fable to the stage with conviction and respect. Through projected images that break with the narrative, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead underlines the profound links between the infinitely small and the forces of nature and the cosmos.

Les LM (elle aime / she likes) de M La Scène : LMMMMM

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe

7 – 18 juin

based on the novel by: Olga Tokarczuk

directed by: Simon McBurney

a Complicité show, the first of its kind in France

avec Thomas Arnold, Johannes Flaschberger, Tamzin Griffin, Amanda Hadingue, Kathryn Hunter, Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer, Weronika Maria, Tim McMullan, César Sarachu, Sophie Steer, Alexander Uzoka 

scenography and costumes Rae Smith

light Paule Constable

sound Christopher Shutt

video Dick Straker

additional direction:  Kirsty Housley

dramaturgy: Laurence Cook Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre

direction of movement: Toby Sedgwick

original compositions: Richard Skelton

wigs: Susanna Peretz

video produced by: Adam Smith @flatnosegeorge

Want to read another M La Scène review of a show at L’Odéon? This one might interest you: Review of Hedda, directed by Aurore Fattier

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