Issue 124:2017 10 12:Knives in Hens (Adam McCormack)

12 October 2017

Knives in Hens – a play by David Harrower

Donmar Warehouse

reviewed by Adam McCormack

On the surface this play is extremely simple.  Just 3 characters and a spare set that has little more on it than a huge mill stone.  The simplicity is reminiscent of those basic economic models where there are just two products.  Here the products are just hens and grain but that is all that is needed to tell a story that at times feels primeval, and certainly earthy – with under currents that are lustful and murderous.  Yet it is ultimately much deeper, covering issues of how the development of language and understanding feed the discovery of identity and dissatisfaction.

Eat, work, and procreate.  At the outset there is nothing more in the life of the two peasants, a ploughman, Pony William, and his wife.  However, the villagers face the necessary evil of having to visit the local miller so that the harvest can be processed.  The miller is a hated figure – but why? Is it because he owns the means to production, and the village loathes being beholden to him? The miller’s power becomes too compelling for the ploughman’s wife, but as she is seduced she also experiences an awakening.  This prompts a gruesome collaboration against the ploughman by his wife and the miller – but who is in control?

A play’s message does not have to be instantly accessible, and this is undoubtedly a production  one would get more from on a further viewing.  There are so many ideas surrounding the emergence from a subsistence lifestyle, with enlightenment provided by language and complications generated by lust and envy.  The question is, are these themes well enough conveyed to justify further reflection?  The answer to that is, yes – just.  The concepts are compelling enough, but the real force of this production comes from the powerful performances, particularly from Judith Roddy.  Thrown about the stage as she is alternately ravished and abused, but we still get a very strong sense of her discovering her own identity, rather than being just the chattel of the ploughman.

The spare set, uncertainty as to when or where the action is taking place (it is clearly pre-industrial) gives a strong sense of this being a parable.  However, while one can see why director Yael Farber wanted to revive David Harrower’s 20 year old play, the subdued lighting and intensity of the action, dialogue and performances make for a grueling spectacle, and leave one having to work a little too hard to grasp the parable’s message.


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