Dana Rufolo in Luxembourg
12 May 2023
Complicité is a member of the UK Touring Theatre Companies and Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, directed by Simon McBurney, came to the continent after a British tour that included the Barbican from 16 March till 1 April. It is a devised production that gives profound dramatic life and dignity to the lead character on stage – an elderly animal rights advocate named Janina Duszejko who is played with dazzling concentration by Kathryn Hunter. The eponymous novel by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (published in 2009, translated into English in 2018) has been transcribed into a fusion of theatre and performance that remains true to Complicité’s origin in 1983 as a spinoff of Jacques Lecoq’s school of physical theatre. Tokarczuk received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2018.
Kathryn Hunter as Janina.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
We love Janina, her raucous voice and precise articulation of words, her standing up to the huge men hunters who criss-cross her life – she is tiny and every other actor on stage is extremely tall by way of contrast – her fearlessness with all and sundry including the police whom she often solicits to take her belief in animal revenge seriously, and her cynical and humorous side remarks. We find her compelling and attractive in her sheer honesty or what appears to be that.
Complicité drives us behind the skin of Janina’s life facts and into her buzzing consciousness, seeing the world inside out. If we extrapolate in reverse and look at Janina as she would appear from an emotional distance, she is a strange patchwork figure of fairy tale and legend: a spinster who worked professionally as an engineer building bridges, who teaches English to youths and translates William Blake, studies astrology, and identifies with wild animals that are treated as fair game by careless Polish hunters who dominate her chauvinistic Polish village. She finds her closest emotional relationships with her pet dogs, now missing, her doctor, and an entomologist she meets when he is researching in her area. Her neighbour Oddball – an almost comical character in his reticence and awkwardness (César Sarachu) – is a forever altruistic presence in her narrative. The interior complexity of Janina’s beliefs and thoughts are reinforced exquisitely with story-supporting video projections and striking musical composition (Dick Straker and Richard Skelton).
Why do critics and reviewers find it imperative to not provide a spoiler, to keep the final plot twist of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead unrevealed? Given that the novel, and the character Janina, are dedicated to proving the interconnectivity between animal and human, the plot of the play ends in a not totally surprising turn of events. If the animals are not wreaking revenge on hunters as Janina convinces us they are doing, they are certainly metaphorically representative of all creatures that are mute and marginalized. The metaphor connects with the Capability Approach to justice of Martha Nussbaum, the philosopher known for insisting that a humane society protects its weakest members; Janina in her age and oddity is seen by those around her as weak even as her defence of the weak is strong.
Brechtian this production is not. Complicité has been ultra-exhaustive in their quest to convert the novel to a drama, using the entire scenographic and dramaturgical support system of the company to render the inner landscape of the principal character. This is all well and good if we keep in mind that Tokarczuk is a professional psychotherapist who has been trained to enter into the imagination of her patients, to see the world through their eyes. The known risk for psychotherapists is over-identification with a patient, not keeping enough distance. As a novelist, Tokarczuk hasn’t had to worry about transference, and the one time when Janina is labelled a criminal (“Don’t forget you murdered”) from someone kindly but looking at her outside in, using the judgement of society and not the inner judgement of compelling emotional logic which is where her story has been situated up to then, these words are not incorporated into staged action. The production itself over-identifies with the main character and implicates the audience as guilty of complicity in crimes against animated life forms. This is done by using stage-rear mirrors that reflect the audience so making us part of the masses who abuse animals passively or actively. As well, extremely bright lights are thrice flashed, if briefly, directly into the audience. They are like paralyzing headlamps as if we are perceived as animals or like prison floodlights if we are perceived as wicked humans – which of the two possibilities remains unclear. I observed an elderly audience member cover his eyes and curl forward in pain for minutes after the first such attack; it was so disturbing that he left the theatre in a rush. Of course, he probably was a meat eater – it might have been fairer if Complicité had requested seating in the theatre to follow dietary lines and turned dazzling lights onto the non-vegetarian category of human.
J.M.Coetzee wrote a serious novel featuring an animal rights advocate without declaring himself to be an animal rights advocate (The Lives of Animals), permitting the reader the chance to not feel personally attacked, and I ask myself if the scenography in this Complicité performance ought to have maintained the same kind of distance or space between Janina’s argument and their own presentational attitudes and beliefs.
This Complicité production only indirectly references war and its victims, doubtless due to Janina’s claim that the lives of animals and humans are equally important. The unanswered question, of course, has to do with consciousness: are animals conscious? The priest in her village, Father Rustle, the priest who is also one of the hunters who dies
mysteriously, tells Janina that Catholic religion concerns itself with souls and only humans have souls; he is portrayed onstage as callous and pompous – unlikeable. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is not about intra-human justice, which is perhaps also an imperative consideration at the moment. I hope that Complicité will next consider producing a devised version of a Polish novel that might address this imbalance: Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life under Tyranny by Witold Szablowski.