Drive-Your-Plow-photo by Marc Brenner

Complicité, with its multi-media devised production of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, at Oxford Playhouse this week, has triumphed.

Not so much a fairy tale, despite the overtones of The Brothers Grimm in the dark woodlands of Eastern Europe, this is more a morality tale for our times.

The rapturous Oxford Playhouse audience – with a large contingent from an Oxfordshire secondary school – were spellbound for the full three hours.  


The theatre company, founded in 1983 by the current artistic director Simon McBurney, uses text, movement, mime, music, lighting and video to create an enraged cry against “ecocide”. 

The pan-European cast – not identified with individual roles – moves fluidly through life and death, human and animal, as interconnected as the forest eco-systems projected behind them.

The play is based on the 2009 novel by Nobel prize winning Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, set in the remote Polish woodland near the Czech border.  

The title itself comes from the quintessential English mystical poet and painter William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, and his poems and images provide a backdrop to the murder-mystery story centred around the ageing, reclusive “eco-warrior“ and astrologer Janina Duszejko.


Men die, animals die. It looks at first as if the animal world – brilliantly and beautifully realised by Rae Smith (set and costume design), Paule Constable, (lighting) and Dick Straker, (video) – is taking its natural revenge on the hunters in the woodland – the two-dimensional figures known as the Commandant, the Priest, the President, sometimes known only by their nicknames.

Fighting against the animal cruelty is a gentler group, formed around Janina, translating Blake’s poems, selling second-hand clothing and studying endangered beetles. Education and culture then come head-to-head with (male) authority and death.

Lead Kathryn Hunter was absent, ( she’s away filming during the Oxford run) and her part was taken on by Amanda Hadingue, who coped admirably but understandably had to rely on a projector for her script, none of which deterred from the action unfolding on stage or the delivery of the story itself.


In the end, the mystery unravels, and the audience ends up questioning whether the end always justifies the means, and the relative values of human and animal life, even if collectively we’ve already addressed this issue and moved on.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a must-see production, dealing with our most profound moral questions about how to live a fully human life with wit, passion and love. It makes you think about the future in a whole new way.

Sheila Bailey

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is on at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday March 4. Tickets start at £10.