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Death and the Ploughman review – 'Primitive humanism'


Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol
Haunting and austere, but it never feels like the audience are trespassing on death's territory

Arnos Vale is no drab, municipal cemetery, but a jumble of gravestones at jaunty angles. There are monolithic needles, 20ft high, and stone angels encoiled in ivy. Soil squelches underfoot. Death looms overhead.

That's exactly Death's point in this lyrical debate between the Grim Reaper – a seductive young woman in a black veil – and an earnest ploughman, newly widowed and wracked by grief. Death knows that she wins out in the end, so what, she demands, is the point of living? The ploughman responds at every turn that life and love, transient though they may be, are absolutely worth the agony of their inevitable ending. "A full portion of joy, a full portion of sorrow," he insists, unrelenting and unrepentant in his optimism.

There's a liturgical quality to this medieval German poem by Johannes von Saaz, which, in Michael West's elegant translation, can catch you off-guard with its plain-spoken text, even if you drift through denser sections. It has a primitive humanism that lets you see death – so often clouded by emotion and enormity – for what it is. "From the moment you enter this world," says Death, "you are old enough to leave it."

That guileless tone is well met by Tom Bailey's promenade production, which feels like a ritual re-enactment. Helen Millar plays Death proud and persistent. Paul Rattray's Ploughman has a dogged courage and just the right hint of hubris. A community chorus is tucked amid the tombstones. You're not always sure whose side they're on: are they pruning or exhuming? Grieving relatives or the risen undead?

Chris Gylee's installations – a bed of slate in a candlelit chapel; furniture spread around funeral plots as if death permeates the ploughman's whole world – are haunting and austere, but long walks between are under-lit and entirely lacking in atmosphere, so it never feels like we – or the Ploughman – are trespassing on death's territory.

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Rating: 3/5

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