Eco-thriller delves into animal rights with sharp wit
Does God really believe animals have no souls? Are they less important than humans? Why is hunting an animal deemed sport when killing a human is murder?
Nobel-prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk caused quite a stir when her novel of the same name was published in her native Poland in 2009. She was accused of anti-religion and inciting eco-terrorism.
The novel was not translated into English until 2018, but I had great expectations of theatre company Complicité's stage version currently touring in Luxembourg, a co-production by several European theatres including London’s Barbican and L’Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris.
I was not disappointed. It opens in an unassuming way, as pint-sized Janina Duszejko comes on stage to test the mic. She looks like a bag lady in her jogging trousers and carrying a plastic bag. But the audience soon discovers that she is a mighty force.
Actress Kathryn Hunter gives an astounding, almost non-stop performance over the space of two and half hours. Between the rapid fire narration, she switches between scenes in her humble home in a Polish village bordering with the Czech Republic, located on a mountainside filled with animals and a plateau that could become a quarry.
There is plenty of satire, a good dose of pain, and a huge amount of empathy for Janina - the only person defending hunted deer, farmed foxes and wild boar against a village of hunters.
Fighting a faceless bureacracy
The play starts with the discovery of the dead body of Janina’s neighbour, an uncouth hunter she calls Big Foot. Four murders follow. It seems like the animals are taking revenge on their killers.
There are wonderful scenes where Janina boldly faces unsympathetic people at the local council and the police – faceless bureaucracies that view her as a mad, but harmless, old lady. She files complaints but she is largely dismissed and is even bullied by the men’s club of hunters who live in the same village.
When she experiences physical pain in her body – her intestines and limbs, we feel the pain of the hunted animal slowly dying. But it’s not just one long lecture or one woman’s stand against authority.
Founder of Complicité and director, Simon McBurney, keeps the audience transfixed throughout the performance. It’s almost exhausting but just when you might start getting tired the action hots up, carrying you on an unexpected wave to the story’s conclusion.
Visual effect fine-tuned to support dialogue
The actors bring to life the animals – in black hooded jackets with their hands as antlers, as a dying wild boar, or silver foxes. Every now and again the stage lights flash brightly and the audience feels just like a deer caught in the headlights, an animal being hunted in the dark.
There are various backdrops, including the night skies, star constellations, a large glass window - a view to the silent forest in winter which turns into a mirror reflecting the debauchery of mankind, which all come together to compliment this dialogue-driven performance.
The sounds created by Christopher Shutt, the video design of Dick Straker, the lighting by Paule Constable and the set and costume design of Rae Smith, form a perfect visual accompaniment, punctuated by the words of English poet William Blake, which fill the back screen.
Janina is not simply an old woman with a grudge against men. She feels the pain of the natural world in her limbs and her guts. She reads the stars to predict the future of the world, and she misses her two dogs, her “girls” who disappeared one day. She refuses to be a prisoner in a society that shuts its eyes to the rape of nature.
Not a lecture but an idea
You might think this will be one long eco-lecture, and the thriller element does detract from what might be a constant barrage of how badly mankind has treated the world.
But it’s not a diatribe, it is thought-provoking. Exactly where does the meat we eat come from, how are the animals treated, and why do we feel we have a right to slaughter them?
McBurney’s depiction of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead will certainly make you think long and hard about how we should coexist with the natural world around us.
The second performance will take place at the Grand Théâtre at 20.00 on 12 May.
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