The week in theatre: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead; Accidental Death of an Anarchist; Berlusconi – review

A woman in her 60s, wearing a shabby tracksuit top and holding a carrier bag, stands in the middle of the wide Barbican theatre stage. She is speaking from behind a mic. She doesn’t seem the sort to be centre stage; she has a marginal look. It is not clear whether she is altogether sane or why she should be in charge of the story. This is in keeping with Polish Nobel-prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s extraordinary novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009), upon which Complicité’s show is based. You do not know where you are with Janina Duszejko or where you are going. She is an unreliable witness. An amateur astrologer who relies on the horoscopes she has drawn up herself, she was, she says, given the wrong name – it is as if her real identity were just out of our sight. The doubt about whether to trust her is a burden throughout the novel and this prevailing uncertainty has been brilliantly poached for the stage version by dramaturgs Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre and Laurence Cook.

We are in a remote Polish village near the Czech border, a place where even when spring comes, the mood stays wintry. This uncommon thriller, an eco-noir, works on the mind like a seizure of cold. In a small community the body count of murdered men from the local hunting club is unsteadily rising. Rae Smith’s black-and-white set, in collaboration with Christopher Shutt’s sound, Paule Constable’s lighting and Dick Straker’s video design, is masterly. In a world dominated by black and white, snowflakes fall like iron filings, and at one point the stage is taken over by the movement of fieldfares in a torrent of light – an exhilarating interplay between screen images and the movement of actors. At intervals, a flashing gun goes off, giving the audience a fright, as though we might be targets. The stage itself has not much more than a kitchen table to furnish it.

The fascinating thing is that, were you to read the novel without knowing Complicité was making a show of it, you could almost guess that it might. There is such an affinity between Tokarczuk’s blackly comic imagination and the company’s preoccupation with darkness, physicality and the eccentric (they have adapted Haruki Murakami, Bruno Schulz and Daniil Kharms). The way the animal world impinges in the novel invites physical interpretation, and you will never see deer more powerfully embodied than here – by actors in hooded black anoraks, arms held antler high.

It is a show that will leave you thinking about hunting in the widest sense – and what it might mean to be prey

It is a suitable irony that the actor playing Janina is standing in for Kathryn Hunter, whose illness put the opening night on hold (she is to return soon). But ironically, having a substitute works in favour of the persistent question: what is this woman doing here? And it is marvellous to report that Amanda Hadingue is not only heroic in the role, she is outstanding. For this Janina, bitterness is momentum: she addresses us directly over three unfaltering hours, her knowing tone reinforcing our unknowing. She is outraged that her “two girls” have vanished. We learn the “girls” are her beloved dogs.

The title is a line from William Blake – Janina is helping her friend Dizzy (Alexander Uzoka) translate his work into Polish. Blake’s “The world was not created for mankind” might serve as a clue to how Janina thinks, but although Blake’s rogue pronouncements are offered as if to pin things down, they actually leave the story open as a plundered grave.

Each member of the 10-strong international company is superb. César Sarachu is particularly entertaining as Janina’s neighbour, who prefers his own jittery DIY sign language to speech. His name – “Oddball”– could be applied to all the characters. Director Simon McBurney pulls off an unforgettable feat – an eco-fable that offers an image of our modern world continuing like a heedless party seen through a glass darkly (the novel was condemned as eco-terrorism by Poland’s nationalist right wing). It is a show that will leave you thinking about hunting in the widest sense – and what it might mean to be prey.

Unreliable witnesses abounded last week. From the moment the sensational Daniel Rigby opens his mouth at the Lyric Hammersmith, waving at us as if we were old friends – it is clear we are in gloriously unsafe hands. He reveals, as Dario Fo and Franca Rame intended when their absurdist classic Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first performed in 1970, a closeness between comic actor and conman. For this is what the “maniac” with the Liberty carrier bag and matching purple waistcoat appears to be. He is known to have impersonated a naval engineer, a flight attendant and a minor royal and now alternates between pretending to be a senior professor of psychiatry and a high court judge.

The “maniac” talks like a high-speed train yet might have the truthful edge on the defective policemen surrounding him. Ostensibly, the death of an anarchist who leapt from a fourth floor window is under investigation, but it is the police themselves in the dock. And in the wake of the recent 300-page report on the Met, there could not be a more appropriate moment for this show, zestfully directed by Daniel Raggett and elegantly designed by Anna Reid. Super-talented writer Tom Basden gives us a sobering romp of an update on the classic (the policemen are down to do “unconscious bias” training) and I loved his line: “roaring like Gordon Ramsay after a disappointing risotto”. In an excellent cast, Tony Gardner stands out as the none-too-bright superintendent whose attempt to let himself off the hook is: “I actually like Meghan Markle.”

But the flashiest of the week’s unreliable narrators was Silvio Berlusconi, whose life is the subject of Berlusconi, a new musical by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan. He introduces himself as “the Jesus Christ of politics”, and although Sebastien Torkia animatedly embodies the billionaire showman politician with his “million lira” grin, the musical, in spite of much waving of Italian flags, lacks bravura (another disappointing risotto). The songs tend to be narrative expositions more often than suspenseful exchanges and the biggest headache is the poppy Eurotrash score – a repetitive torment to the ears.

Sebastien Torkia as Silvio Berlusconi at Southwark Playhouse.
Sebastien Torkia and co in Berlusconi: A New Musical: ‘much waving of Italian flags’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Much talent goes missing in action: Sally Ann Triplett does her classy best as a leftwing judge, and Gavin Wilkinson gamely becomes a cartoon Putin in an absurdly romantic number with Berlusoni, but they can’t rise above their second-rate lyrics. Only Natalie Kassanga’s Bella, one of Berlusconi’s call girls, convinces us, with a withdrawn dignity, that she is feeling something real. The “trial of the century” seems to take a century. And when Berlusconi sings: “Is this the way my story ends?” we have not yet reached the interval.

Star ratings (out of five)
Drive Your Plow
Accidental Death of an Anarchist