I absolutely loved Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead - so expectations for Complicité’s stage version were complicated. This was one of those ‘please let it be great’ nights, which is a high bar to set for any production. So it was with great relief that I found myself absorbed in the dark forests and strange hinterlands of Janina Duszejko’s world, reconnecting with her defiant world-view and wrangling with the questions raised by my first reading. This imaginative, energetic and bold adaptation made for a striking theatrical experience, and successfully channels the lifeblood of Tokarczuk’s original creation.
The brilliant Amanda Hadingue played Janina with an impish quality I hadn’t anticipated but hugely enjoyed - it challenged my prior assumptions about Janina, and I realised I had perhaps been conditioned to imagine ‘difficult women of a certain age’ to follow a prescriptive set of characteristics. But Hadingue’s Janina is satisfyingly contradictory and complex.
This really matters in Drive Your Plow, because it’s so easy for people to assume they know Janina already: a woman over 60, living alone, no obvious family, devoted to her pets, deeply interested in astrology and committed to animal rights. In many stories this information would be shorthand for the village witch or the bonkers aunt - an easy plot device with nothing more to offer. However, Drive Your Plow gives us Janina as the central voice, the core storyteller, and lures the audience into seeing things her way, even if some are initially still aligned with the policemen who disregard what she has to say as the ramblings of a ‘crazy old lady’.
Complicité gave her a chance to really be heard: other characters flow in and out of the ensemble but Janina remains constant, central and visible. In a world that too often lumps all women over 40 as ‘older’ (yes, really - just look at the Google search results!) and unimportant it is vital that we see Janina. You might not agree with her, but she has a vibrant life, important points to make, and the courage to confront the status quo.
I loved the use of the ensemble cast and their understated choreography - as they morph from hunters to animals to townsfolk, they provide all the context you need, without ever taking too much away from Janina. The lovely Good News, sensitive Dizzy and awkward Oddbod felt fully formed, yet still fluid. This approach worked brilliantly with the dark stage: they were shapes and shadows, defined by Janina more than our own perceptions. The use of projection, lighting and creative audio helped switch settings in a similarly fluid way - although it’s worth noting that if you’re sensitive to bright flashes of light and bursts of loud noise these do feature.
At times I missed the contemplative space provided by the act of reading, and in skipping a few key pieces of information there were moments when I felt we didn’t quite get the full Janina, but taking a book this rich and poetic to the stage is no mean feat, and within the constraints of time and audience this production achieves so much.
This is a strong interpretation of a fantastic book - challenging, funny and curiously life-affirming (if you’re on Team Janina once the truth comes out!).