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FringeReview UK 2017

Knives in Hens

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down


This Donmar Warehouse revival is directed by Yael Farber whose recent Salomé at the National shares the same iridescent feel. There’s intimacy in Soutra Gilmour’s bare threshing-floor set with a huge millwheel grinding at the back. Tim Lutkin’s liminal dawns and dusks emit light. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s evocative cello-led score is diffused in Christopher Shutt’s sound. Till October 7th.


The first tender shock in David Harrower’s extraordinary 1995 debut Knives in Hens is that a snatched almost despairing discovery of his voice wrenched from a larger play should feature the discovery of words.


It’s emphasised in this Donmar Warehouse revival, directed by Yael Farber whose recent Salomé at the National shares the same iridescent feel: grain through hands and body. There’s the same deliberate tread of words too but in Harrower’s language the analogues are cyclical, seasonal, groping to articulation. There’s intimacy in Soutra Gilmour’s bare threshing-floor set with an occasional tallow-lit table and a huge vertical millwheel grinding at the back. Tim Lutkin’s liminal dawns and dusks emit light where new-milled flour is the strongest. Crucially the Donmar’s space works beautifully – just the intimacy Salomé cried out for. If Isobel Waller-Bridge’s evocative score seems on occasion too evoked, it’s for the right ritual reason, and Christopher Shutt’s sound diffuses it effectively. The cello line, uniquely vocal could have worked however without the percussive thunks and blurring of one of Judith Roddy’s speeches.


The nameless woman who writes her name for the literate miller shocks us with her own literacy. Hitherto he’s been living at the bounds of her known world of field and ploughman husband. In the mill with a pen and ink she discovers everything she thinks is alien, or ‘bastard’ as she addresses the miller, is potentially her future. A bastard too is a form of type. In a late medieval world of increasing literacy, we don’t know how far we edge towards Gutenberg.


This pre-industrialised, pre-literate world is something that’s fascinated dramatists recently, from E V Crowe’s The Knitting Circle where the reveal says even more about our obsession, to Martin Crimp’s libretto for George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, utilising illuminated manuscripts, eroticism and repression in a twelfth-century triangle not far from Knives in Hens. But Harrower found it before anyone else.


We start with love-making and simile. ‘I’m not a field’ claims Judith Roddy’s Young Woman, not grasping she’s been ploughed as far as he’s concerned, by Christian Cooke’s Pony William whose way with horses takes him farther and farther from her. Cooke has a through-line directness not excluding tenderness, but conveying fixed values including one on his wife: his labels denote possessions too.


It’s this discovery both tutelary and delimiting that demarks rhythms of a couple where William drags every comparison in to overcome the literal nominal world his wife inhabits. ‘The moon’s like cheese. ’S like cheese. But it’s not.’ Roddy’s character turns this neatly on him: ‘’S cheese like the moon?’ to which he can only reply ‘I know more’n you’ which he reinforces by feeling her, proclaiming she’s like the field she’s not seen.


Harrower’s way in building this scene up from what seem almost pre-verbal recognitions is masterly, delineating both the characters’ and plays dynamic but in ways you’d not guess.


So when she’s tasked with taking his place because of a foaling the Young Woman starts that long journey to the field like her, through the miller’s door, which she refuses. Harrower’s monologues for the woman build an increased confidence, perhaps over years. Roddy’s stillness and increasing mastery is superb here, even if a blurry ambient thrubbing at one pint frays the edges of her speech.


Still, confronting the miller is another knowing. Harrower invokes the Mille of Dee ‘I care for nobody, no, not I, if nobody care for me’ which Britten memorably turned into a terrifying Schubertian trope of loneliness with the mill-race of his piano. Harrower must have that in kind. The miller’s not only some borderline outcast, book-learned, possessed of cheating scales and snatching more that his share of the grain he mills. He’s occult, other, living off others’ toil. Just as she learns language the Young Woman finds she has to unlearn the boundaries she’s been set too.


Religion namely the repeat of ‘evil’ and ‘bastard’ only intrude when Gilbert Horn the miller’s present to contradict it. The Miller of Dee superscription returns: he’s learned though embittered and knows the towns contain more books and indeed the paper so soft he exhorts the Young Woman to sleep on it. In the on-going negotiations the gradual awakening of curiosity there’s a jump-cut of belief when we discover the Young Woman can write. ‘Tell you what, horse-wife. You’re beautifully named.’ Harrower keeps the men apart till near the end, both here dark-bearded, Matt Ryan and Cooke resembling each other strikingly – something Farber’s decided on to move us from the obvious Pygmalion trope to something other.


Ryan deliberates and lights his words as he points them across to Roddy with the precision he takes to light a lamp. By the end the still unnamed Young Woman has learned far more than words, business acumen, even desire. She’s passed biblically through knowledges including death. It’s the Pandora’s box of modernity: lying, double-dealing, and her last words are ambiguous indeed though we can guess at how different directors might handle them. Harrower doesn’t let us sink back to primordial moral, nor closure. The possibilities hover at the threshold, she is naming. Roddy’s emergence is radiant: it glints with a whetted knife.


A play easily moving to classic status, this production supremely re-affirms its poetic ambivalence, though the silences occasionally breaking through suggest Farber could have trusted more to these. Certainly the actors do, and it’s a production opening up more than itself, even the play. It persuades of a world crookedly trekking straight towards us.