Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead begins quietly. Without ceremony – without even the dimming of the house lights – a middle aged woman walks up to a microphone and begins speaking. “I want to tell you a story,” she says. It’s so nonchalant that for a moment we wonder if the play has actually begun, or if this is some kind of pre-show announcement.
This casual beginning is deceptive. While Amanda Hadingue’s Janina continues to spend much of the evening addressing the audience directly at the mike, what unfolds is powered by an intense and ferocious rage.
And Janina is full of rage. The story she tells is of mysterious deaths among the members of a hunting club in rural southern Poland and her theory that woodland animals are taking revenge. But its driving force is Janina’s fury at the continual abuse of nature she sees around her.
It’s a fury so big that it can’t be contained within a single person. While the play remains anchored on Janina and her microphone, the entire space reflects her turmoil. The stage around her, bare but for a row of mismatched chairs, continually transforms through a dizzying series of projections and light effects, and through the bodies of the ensemble cast who effortlessly switch between playing supporting characters (human and animal) and embodying Janina’s emotions. The line between actors, set and effects becomes blurred: at one point, the bodies of the cast combine with the chairs and a projected image of a hunting tower to become one grotesque monument to butchery.
It’s disorienting, and relentless. Soothing images of snowfall are followed by harsh flashes and disturbing, half-seen images of monstrous faces or slaughtered animals. Gently comic moments are interrupted by shocking brutality. Ear-splitting basslines are punctured by absolute silence. In the audience, you’re swept along, overwhelmed, left with no choice but to share in Janina’s rage and pain.
Hadingue, in a role about as demanding as a role can be (and which is alternated with Kathryn Hunter to avoid exhausting either actor), is monumental. Her character is eccentric, spiky, obsessive, but Hadingue gives her a magnetic wryness and warmth. Considering the dark places the play explores, it is important this woman be someone we want to go with. That we do want to go with her – staying with her from jokes about Covid all the way through to the howling, ferocious final act – is largely down to Hadingue’s deeply engaging performance.
The integration of physical movement, light, projection and sound is seamless, and it’s this more than anything else that makes Drive Your Plow a gut-wrenching theatrical experience more than simply a play. Above all, the rich soundscape created by Christopher Shutt – moving from pastoral lyricism to creeping dread, and punctured by moments of shrieking horror – completes the sense that the whole theatre has been subsumed by Janina’s anger. Occasional metatheatrical moments – “Will you turn that fucking music off?”, yells Janina at the tech crew at one point – provide brief, necessary moments of lightness.
This is demanding theatre, one that expects its audience to go beyond passive reactions. It’s long, clocking in at three hours. It is exhausting as well as exhilarating. There are moments when the script verges on hectoring about the morals of meat eating and our relationship with nature. However, recognising that this is territory where audiences can become disengaged, director Simon McBurney wisely underplays them. They’ve barely happened before we’re swept away in the action once again.
The show wears its heart and its morals on its sleeve. By leaning so hard into its exclusive focus on a single protagonist – who, it becomes clear, is not an entirely reliable narrator – it invites questions as to the different perspectives we do not get to see (were the dead victims really all so reprehensible as they are portrayed, we wonder?).
But there is no pretence here, no effort to give environmental issues a ‘both sides’ treatment or to hide the production’s biases. It’s challenging, visceral, immersive theatre with a mission at its heart. If you’re not angry now, the show says, we’ll drench you in anger. And it does.