It's Complicated!

Maybe his death was a punishment. Maybe the deer punished him… 


(Photo: Alex Brenner)
According to director Simon McBurney, Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is “one of literature’s most fervent portrayals of the human experience in our modern world.” 
This is a very big claim, and one difficult to assess without first having read every novel in every language of the modern world that deals with ‘human experience’. Which, it seems reasonable to assume, is most of them. And of course fervour is in the eye of the beholder with one person’s enthusiasm being another’s hysteria. Nor is hate speech judged solely by the vigour with which it is expressed.

So what do we find in Complicité and their associate’s adaptation of the novel?
Janina, an older woman living in the isolated Bloodlands of Central Europe, finds herself at the heart of a modern murder mystery. A series of local men are found dead in the traditional mysterious circumstances. Is it murder? If so, are the killings linked? And who, or what, is responsible? Of course we want answers to these questions but they are not too well disguised and so our interest is focused directly at Janina herself. She stands centre stage and narrates the story for the better part of 3 hours. (A considerable achievement by Amanda Hadingue taking over the role from the indisposed Kathryn Hunter.)
Sophie Steer and Amanda Hadingue (Photo:Alex Brenner)

Janina defies categorisation. Our expectations of a Polish Miss Marple are soon confounded. Janina makes a living as a janitor for the country houses of rich city folk. But she also translates the poetry of Blake, has sex with passing entomologists, smokes dope, knows the lyrics of “House of the Rising Sun”, and began her career as a bridge-building engineer. Though she now puts her faith in astrology rather than science.  She also has ‘ailments’, and may or may not talk to visions of her Mother and Grandmother who appear in something like Hell in the furnace room. 

But if it is Hell is it more like William Blake’s – a source of imaginative power rather than retributive punishment?  Does Janina in fact embody Blake’s refusal to accept the ‘normal’ as reality. His insistence that we cleanse our eyes to see the truth? But can the audience not be trusted to grasp this notion without being periodically blinded by painful bursts of illumination? It is quite clear early now that we are being directly addressed, and not by theatrical artifice.

So is this a contrarian Agatha Christie mystery? Or something more like a Gothic revenge tragedy? Or neither? Does Janina, following Blake, embody an explicit denial of crude and damaging binaries, and look beyond what the unenlightened call Reality. Does her astrology descry a Cosmos that accommodates Devils as well as Angels, where Heaven and Hell marry, and where everything is connected to everything else? Or is she simply deluded? Or is that a vulgar dichotomous assumption?

The resolution we return to after the interval is somewhat weightless and we are left to gaze in wonder at the Universe. Or at least part of it. After all, we’re all part of it and so is everything. The interrelatedness of everything? Including evil? Where does it come from? asks one character. But this key issue is dodged by facetious remarks. That we are all connected is obviously true but surely what matters in practice is what power and knowledge each part has and how it relates to the others. This may be why the production avoids emotional engagement between characters.

Tamzin Griffin and Amanda Hadingue. (Photo: Alex Brenner)

There really is only one Character. We can find Janina’s digs at Testosterone Syndrome and Instant Coffee amusing, if hardly biting. And her depiction of pain is moving. But the rest of the very able cast have little chance to stretch out, being mostly restricted to posing to make tableaux for the Narrator. Their occasional in-character engagements with Janina – She of the Great Complexity – are narrowly clichéd. Village Thug, Corrupt Politician, Corrupt Policeman, Hypocritical Priest, Tyrannical Head Teacher, Kindly Medic, Abused Spouse, Eccentric Neighbour, Concerned Nephew. The villains are depicted as physically and personally unpleasant, and thus more deserving of their fate. 

So for me Drive… doesn’t really deliver. Too slight a craft to carry such a heavy cargo of metaphysical speculation. (Blake himself could do it in two lines.) Although the performances are compelling the text is not. Basically we are invited to empathise with a Protagonist who kills to avenge crimes against animals. But is not above casting suspicion on the creatures themselves. To frame them and invite punishment? Or invite humans to understand their pain? 

How do we make sense of everything? 

Perhaps not with astrology.

(But I would be interested to know how contemporary astrologers deal with Black Holes and Dark Matter.“Geminis especially should take extra care to avoid the A30 Honiton by-pass this weekend due to road works and an unseasonal confluence of Dark negativity…)

Sophie Steer and Amanda Hadingue; background: ensemble (Photo: Alex Brenner)

Production Notes

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Created by Olga Tokarczuk

Translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Directed by Simon McBurney



Amanda Hadingue

Cesar Sarachu

Johannes Flaschberger

Kathryn Hunter

Sophie Steer

Thomas Arnold

Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer

Tim McMullan

Weronika Maria

Alexander Uzoka


Director: Simon McBurney

Designer: Rae Smith

Composer: Richard Skelton

Lighting Designer: Paule Constable

Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt

Video Designer: Dick Straker

Movement Director: Toby Sedgwick

Dramaturg: Laurence Cook, Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre


Running Time: Three hours  minutes with an interval

Closed at the Barbican on 1st April 2023 but touring 


Barbican Theatre

Barbican Centre

Silk Street

London EC2Y 8DS

Box Office:

020 7638 4141

Barbican Website:

Tube: Barbican or Moorgate

Touring Dates

Nottingham Playhouse

4 – 8 April

Tickets on sale here

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

19 – 22 April

Tickets on sale here

The Lowry, Salford

25 – 29 April

Tickets on sale here

Ruhrfestspiele, Recklinghausen

3 – 6 May 

Tickets on sale here

Grand Theatre, Luxembourg

11 – 12 May

Tickets on sale here

10th Theatre Olympics, Budapest

16 – 17 May

Tickets on sale here

Wiener Festwochen, Vienna

22 – 26 May

Tickets on sale here

Holland Festival, Amsterdam

1 – 3 June 2023

Tickets on sale here

L’Odeon, Paris

7 – 17 June

Tickets on sale here


Reviewed by Brian Clover

at the Barbican Theatre on 1st April 2023