Knives in Hens

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Christian Cooke as Pony William and Judith Roddy as Young Woman. Photo: Marc Brenner

Knives in Hens by David Harrowver – Young Vic, London

David Harrowver’s 1995 play is unlike other drama of the time. While new writers focused on the freedoms and horror of late 20th century urban life, Harrowver went right back to the start for his first piece, stripping everything away including characters, dialogue and context. What is left is dark, relentless and hard to forget. Twenty years on, Yaël Farber’s fascinating revival at the Donmar shows how well this play has lasted, growing in strangeness and significance since the shock of its first performance at the Traverse.

The highly symbolic set, by Soutra Gilmour, is almost entirely black, dominated by a vast sphere that turns out to be a mill wheel, its unstoppable grind at the heart of the play. Costumes are also black, and the only contrast comes from flashes of white – a drift of plucked feathers, a cloud of flour. There is also ink which, significantly, is the blackest thin of all. Three characters step through a grim dance – a Young Woman (Judith Roddy), her ploughman husband Pony William (Christian Cooke) and the Gilbert, the village miller (Matt Ryan). The play begins in a darkness of ignorance, as the Woman learns the most basic of words to describe objects and connects them to feelings. When she meets the miller she becomes able to write, and the unstoppable transition from a passive object of God’s creation to a distinct individual, able to record thoughts, begins. However, the arrival of individual expression brings both terror and hope.

Harrowver sets the play somewhere in medieval England, in an entirely unromantic rural setting where life is harsh, bestial and carries no possibilities. His language has the same characteristics: aggressive, simple and direct. He taps into rural prejudice, including a rich seam of forgotten hatred for millers. The action rolls forward as inevitably as Greek drama, just as the new millstone is rolled through the village, and the arrival of ideas from outside disrupts assumptions and sows discontent. We never seen beyond the three characters, but Harrowver achieves a remarkable sense of a society surrounding them. The cast are very strong, inhabiting these both familiar and alien types: Judith Roddy awakened and dangerous, Christian Cooke rough and tender and Matt Ryan trouble, but able gaze beyond the farthest field. Farber’s production is deeply striking, marrying sound and images, from the ripping of plucked chicken feathers to the roar of the turning mill wheel. Knives in Hens is a top quality production of a play that affirms its status as a modern classic.

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