Knives in Hens
Donmar Warehouse, 21st September 2017
Now I guessed I was going to like this. All the clever folk who know about plays and stuff had raved about it. Written in 1995 by David Harrower it is considered a classic of British modern theatre. Its ostensible subject matter, the power of language, and its setting, an imagined English medieval past, is right up my street (thanks in part to the vicarious interest generated from MS’s journey).
But I had no idea just how brilliant this was going to be. Easily joins my top 10 all time best plays. It is staggeringly good and director Yael Farber’s production could scarce be bettered I would think.
For those like me who weren’t up to speed on Knives in Hens, it goes like this. The Young Woman, an outstanding performance from Judith Roddy, is married to ploughman Pony William, a brutal but fearful, Christian Cooke, in a village somewhere up North. Her knowledge of the world is bounded by her role as wife, the work she has to do, by language and by location. Husband sends her with their grain to the Miller, Gilbert North, played by Matt Ryan with profound depth. His wife has died, he is alone, and the village has cast him out, in part because they are dependent on him. But he can write and he can think and see beyond the everyday. She is wary of the Miller but their relationship develops. Pony William betrays her. There is a dramatic denouement. That is basically it.
The language is spare. The lighting is monochrome. The set, with a giant grindstone, behind a muddied, brickstone floor, is austere. We have a mournful cello and a near unbroken drone. There is even some flour drifting through the air at one point. For those familiar with Yael Farber’s work, including the somewhat unfairly maligned Salome at the NT, (Salome at the National Theatre ***) all this is likely familiar. But in this play these directorial tropes were bang on.
So what is so special about the play? Well for me the text perfectly captures the world in which it is set. The medieval mind was very different from the modern mind. Knowledge was largely derived from immediate experience or dictated by the Church. The supernatural was very real. Nature informed existence. Language for this class was largely spoken not written. Writing was the medium for power, the word of God and contract. The schism between the rural and the urban. David Harrower’s text inhabits this world. No nostalgic arcadia here.
But this is only the starting point for more universal questions. How do we gain knowledge? Why are we scared of knowing? How does language define what we know? How does the written word differ from the spoken word? What do people invent gods to explain the world? How do women secure agency (one of Ms Farber’s vital themes, and, as in Salome, we have a nameless woman here)? What actions can be justified in the pursuit of freedom?
Now I appreciate that I am getting quite carried away here but this is where the play took me. An epistemological triumph if you will, woven out of the most mythic of threads. I can fully appreciate that others might just see a rather bleak, love triangle, fable but this floored me. In fact I had to sit down and have a cup of tea before heading home just to think about what I had seen. And I am still thinking about it.
So thank you Mr Harrower. Thank you Donmar. Thank you Ms Farber. And thanks to our three actors.
“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”. Indeed.