Wizards of the theatre, shamans of the stage and undoubtedly one of the greatest theatre companies to have ever existed, anywhere, Simon McBurney’s Complicité stage the unstageable with supernatural panache.
Nonetheless, cruel reality caught up with the company on the press night for its adaptation of Nobel-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’: lead actor Kathryn Hunter was taken ill shortly before curtain-up, causing the show to be cancelled.
The implication is that Hunter will return later this week (and I suspect the show will return), but for the rescheduled press performance her understudy Amanda Hadingue took on the lead role.
And what a monumental role it is. You can see why Hadingue couldn’t just be plonked on as a last-minute press night replacement. ‘Lead actor’ scarcely does justice to the gargantuan part of Janina Duszejko, an aging lady from rural Poland who serves as the antagonist to Tokarzuk’s exhilaratingly wild story, a heady mix of noir-ish murder mystery, haunting eco-thriller and more.
The three-hour play is, in essence, a fantastically souped-up monologue. Hadingue’s Janina constantly complains of her invisibility as an older woman, but here she literally takes the mic, jealously guarding a centre-stage microphone as she shares her story with us: confiding, narrating, soliloquising… and of course, interacting with the rest of cast. But this is Janina’s world – everyone else is just a guest.
Hadingue is terrific, but also so dominant that it’s hard to really picture how the show might be with Hunter. It’s possible they’re giving very similar performances. But I’ve heard that that’s not the case. It’s a fact that Hunter is renowned for her eccentric clowning and full-bodied physical performances. What’s perhaps most striking about Hadingue’s Janina is how normal she is. Yes, she’s an eccentric, a rural recluse obsessed with horoscopes who becomes increasingly consumed by a sense of burning injustice at mankind’s treatment of nature, convinced that a series of local murders are the work of a vengeful natural world. But she’s also disarmingly down-to-earth, explaining herself to us with a plaintive frankness and wry humour that takes us with her to some pretty strange places. She’s like an old friend, matily regaling us with scarcely believable stories as if they were neighbourhood gossip.
I’m wary of spoilers here: the mystery-style format does lend itself to being spoiled. So it’s best not to get too deep into the plot, save to note that it begins with Janina discovering the murder of her hated neighbour Bigfoot, which she fancies to be the responsibility of a pair of onlooking stags, and accelerates from there, as more and more murders stack up.
If Hadingue is the show’s skeleton and muscles, then everything else in McBurney’s production exists to give depth and detail. It doesn’t need its evocative stream of visual set-pieces to work, from a creepy masked ball to Janina and two friends getting stoned under twinkly projections of the heavens. Its physical flourishes – actors playing dogs and deer – are just a bonus. But they add a beautiful richness to ‘Drive Your Plow…’, a sense that we’re here to bear witness to a proper story, told carefully and with ceremony, not just a twisty thriller banged out. Tokarczuk is a remarkable, almost unclassifiable, writer. If this is probably her most accessible novel, it still requires a singular company to take it on, one that can conjure not just the plot beats, but the book’s sense of nightmare/dream, its evocation of woods and borders and man’s uneasy relationship with age and death and nature.
Compared to 2015’s mind-blowing ‘The Encounter’ – the last ‘proper’ Complicité show – ‘Drive Your Plow…’ is more recognisably theatre as we know it, and by the impossibly high bar the company has set it’s reasonably conventional. But you don’t need to change the game every time: it’s just a joy to see the old magic flow forth once again.