The William Blake Blog

Auguries of Innocence? Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk, Kathryn Hunter is astonishing in the lead role of Janina but some other aspects of Complicité's production jar.

When I first read Olga Tokarczuk's novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, it immediately became one of my favourite novels. In the character of Janina, the former teacher and engineer who, we gradually learn, plots against the hunters who are slowly destroying the forest—and its animals—for their own dull pleasures. William Blake's poetry is not merely alluded to as a motif to be riffed on as and when the author pleases, but instead is tightly interwoven in the story of a woman overlooked because of her age, sex and understanding, which of course is written off as irascibility and the perversity of being female.

There is, of course, certain problems in a female protagonist being Blakean: while he was the author of one of the most profoundly radical feminist texts of the eighteenth century, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, later Blake in particular would too often rail against the Female Will to make him an easy choice for fellow travellers. Nonetheless, Janina is a truly Blakean protagonist, one who is imbued with his idiosyncratic determination to follow their own vision and moral path—even if, as it is slowly revealed—that leads us along the route followed by Rintrah and his deadly wrath.

This, then, is the milieu into which Complicité have stepped to create a version of Tokarczuk's novel that, in many ways, is a remarkable translation of the Polish Nobel prize-winner's work. Directed by Simon McBurney, the play has been on tour in a number of venues across the UK and I had the immense pleasure of seeing it at Nottingham Playhouse. The most important thing to note before anything else is the simply astonishing performance by Kathryn Hunter, which goes far beyond anything I had expected. In the lead role of Janina, she utterly dominates every scene—as she should. In retrospect, her compelling, driving energy should have meant that I was utterly thrilled by the prospect of witnessing three hours of Blakean-inspired drama, and yet I left the theatre rather more troubled by what I had seen than I had anticipated, and have even begun to doubt that Tokarczuk's novel is as Blakean as I first thought.

Part of the problem is that Hunter is so good in the role. While the character of Janina may not embody some of the aspects of physical theatre for which she is most renowned (and, in some respects, the entire production was a little more static than I had expected, with Hunter often centre stage and surrounded by a panoply of characters to either side), she was electric and thoroughly compelling as a focus for the audience. To some extent, the entire performance came across as a one-woman show with walk-on parts by various other characters: Hunter carries the show and, with a poignant emphasis on age and ailments (which I had not paid sufficient attention to when reading the novel), she embodies Janina in a way that I shall not forget.

The difficulty this creates, however, is that there is not sufficient space for the other characters. Janina's encounters and all-too-brief love affair with the entomologist, Borys Sznajder, studying a rare beetle whose habitat will soon be destroyed by developers, lacks the emotional resonance that it has in the novel, while the role of Dizzy who is translating William Blake with Janina suffers a series of cuts that render him almost pointless at times. 

These are characters who are sympathetic to Janina and who, in her own way, she loves. Much worse, however, are the villains of the play: the Commandant, the President and others, are reduced to caricatures. Much of this comes from an almost-inevitable compression of the novel's explicatory prose (we are given insights, for example, as to how the Commandant was once a more ordinary militiaman who had joined the force to avoid having to go to the glassworks, and gradually become corrupted over the years). More than this, however, is the emphasis in the stage production on comedy, and this is where I really began to lose sympathy with the play. Too often, pretty much everyone Janina dislikes—and even to an extent those she loves—become caricatures, and the howls of laughter as she relates how she kills those who are destroying her world became distinctly unpleasant.

One of the profound consequences of this reduction of Tokarczuk's often very humorous novel to ribald comedy, even slapstick at points, is that it loses the profound moral question of that work: how do we deal with evil in the world? One of the most affecting moments of the play is when Janina makes the point from the novel that "if people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them." If Janina is doing the devil's work, it is because—to quote Auguries of Innocence, the Blake text most often quoted in the play—"A Horse misusd upon the Road/Calls to Heaven for Human blood." Bloody murder may be an all-too human response to dealing with our own powerlessness in the face of wilful, stupid destruction, but Blake himself rejected violence as the answer - something lost in this comic production.