“Every thing I see or know is put in my head by God. Every thing he created is there every day, sunrise to sundown, earth to sky. It cannot be touched or held the same way I touch a table or hold the reins of a horse. It cannot be sold or cooked. His world is there, in front of my eyes. All I must do is push names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen.”
Yäel Farber, following a mixed reception to her Salomé at the National Theatre earlier this year (about which you can read culturised’s thoughts here) moves from one of London’s most expansive stages to one of its most intimate at the Donmar Warehouse in the heart of the West End. While Salomé was performed on a grand scale, relying primarily on its impressive visual set pieces, this production of Knives and Hens shows Farber is capable of taking on the subtleties of characterisation while managing to maintain much of her usual aesthetic.
Knives and Hens by David Harrower has been hailed as a modern Scottish classic, yet is still fairly unknown (at least South of the border). This is a dark and murky tale of a rural pre-industrial era where Christianity, Pagan traditions, and superstitions lie uneasily beside each other. The unnamed Young Woman (Judith Roddy) is married to Pony William (Christian Cooke), the village ploughman with an uncomfortable affection for the horses he rears. The Young Woman lives a mundane existence until she is told by William to visit the mysterious Miller (Matt Ryan), a man the village hates.
At the beginning Pony William (after the two have had passionate sex) informs the Young Woman that she is like a field, a metaphor which she doesn’t truly understand. The importance of language is emphasised directly from the beginning as the Young Woman grapples with her internal need to name the things around her. She looks for a concrete word, a definitive answer to what something is. This goes against the metaphor-thick speech of both Pony William and the Miller. The two seem at odds over this approach and Pony William seeks to use this as a means of asserting superiority. The battle over language runs parallel to the more physical wrestling for power and it appears that one must come with the other.
The Miller represents the coming industrialisation and a growing shift in power as portions of the village people’s grain must be sacrificed in return for the use of the millstone, despite the group effort in making and transporting the new stone that features later in the play. Although their resentment appears someone unfounded the Miller acts as an opposing force to the seemingly uncivilised community as he spends his evenings by the fireplace writing down his thoughts, distanced from the seemingly endless labour endured by those of the community. The pen he holds is deemed an artefact of the devil by the Young Woman despite her own ability to write. As the relationship develops between the Young Woman and the Miller by offering her the pen he also offers radical social upheaval. The power of words and the importance of naming takes on an entirely new significance once she is able to take her internal self and make it external onto the page.
Overall the darkness and fire lighting creates an aesthetic of obscurity reflective of the secretive nature of the trio. The Young Woman is drawn to both the firelight of her home and that of the mill making the rest of the surrounding seemingly inhospitable. Farber’s staging uses barely any set – a blanket on the earthen floor is used to symbolise their marital bed – and so the stage lighting does a lot of the work in evoking the imagination. The looming millstone at the back of the stage creates some interesting shadows and it almost feels as if the play is in black and white. An interesting recent comparison would be Common staged at the National Theatre (read culturised’s take here), who also used the earthen floor and mud to create a sense of place for a community deeply tied to its land. While it always felt that the Olivier stage was too vast to carry this message effectively in Common, the Donmar’s intimate nature aids this sense of scene with the very ground of the stage holding prominence.
Like most of Farber’s recent work there is an element of timelessness as well as a slightly biblical feel to it given its fable nature. The overt theatrically is an asset to this production although at times was a little distracting as sound effects were often a little too utilised as a means of creating tension. The timing of the piece is it’s true strength however. As a one act play the progression maintains suspense and the production keeps the viewers engaged with a story far removed from their own lives.
Knives in Hens is showing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 7th October. For more information and tickets see here.