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Review | Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead | The Lowry | 25/04/2023

Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ was first published in Polish in 2009. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature following the books English publication. With such impressive writing credentials, the challenge of replicating success on stage has been taken on by the world renowned Complicité.

Beginning in almost complete darkness, a single spotlight lights a microphone stand centre stage. Into the light appears an older eccentric lady, Janina (Kathryn Hunter), who delivers a monologue addressing the audience directly. As both the protagonist in the story and its narrator, she breaks the fourth wall regularly, without it ever feeling forced or unnecessary.

Janina has an adoration for three things; animals, astrology and William Blake. We feel her anguish when her pets go missing whilst others can’t empathise with her frustration and distress. When her hunting neighbour ‘Big Foot’ is found dead, she struggles to find sympathy, having always detested what he stood for. Could this be the animals of the neighbouring forest finally getting revenge? She seems to believe so, even if the police don’t take her seriously. Big Foot however is only the first one to die in this sleepy Polish village.

Olivier Award winner Kathryn Hunter plays Janina to absolute perfection, with a warmth and likability from the moment she takes to the stage. Providing humour and light throughout the often dark and foreboding tale, Hunter is captivating and it was an honour to watch her triumph in this role.

The production itself is impeccable, amongst the finest I have seen. Paula Constable’s lighting design is genius and it is easy to see why she has won the Olivier for Best Lighting Design a record breaking five times! The show starts in almost complete darkness, creating an almost menacing ambience. The lighting manages to make the audience feel almost uncomfortable at times, in line with the narrative itself. It is beautifully complimented by Christopher Shutt’s powerful sound design, collectively giving a creative masterclass.

The staging is minimalist and this is to its advantage. As the play begins, we see only a microphone stand and a line of chairs. Projections bring the piece more to life than any complex set could. From projecting Janina’s nightmares to mountainous landscapes, Dick Straker’s enchanting video design is wonderfully powerful. With the play drawing its title from a William Blake quote, his words are littered through both the narrative and on screen to great effect.

Whilst the robust production is undeniable, the narrative itself is at times difficult to follow. This is not to say it couldn’t more loosely be followed. What has been created forces the audience to challenge their own opinions on issues around animals in this magnificent staging of Tokarczuk’s story.

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ remains at The Lowry until Saturday 29 April 2023, where it concludes its UK tour before continuing in Europe. See below for booking information:

If you are unable to get to The Lowry, you are able to livestream performances from Thursday 27 April until Saturday 29 April, from £15.99. See below for more information:

Note: My ticket was gifted. Irrespective of whether a show is gifted or bought, I always ensure that my reviews are fair and based on my honest opinion alone.


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