Bleak, visceral and brooding the Donmar Warehouse revival of David Harrower’s break-out play, Knives In Hens, is strangely potent.
This is very much a director’s play, all beautifully crafted set, sound and lighting design, with performances from its cast of three that are primitive and pared down as much as they are articulate and enlightening.
Yaël Farber has worked her magic to create an unearthly, unsettling production but it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Knives In Hens opens with a woman squatting on a stool and plucking a chicken. Her sweaty, muscular husband strides in, grabs her and hurls her to the ground for sex before a single word of dialogue has been spoken.
For we soon appreciate how barbaric and raw rural life can be for, what the programme tells us, are medieval peasants – though to be honest the trio looked like they have been dressed by trendy All Saints.
Harrower’s stark portrayal of country folk centres on Judith Roddy’s inarticulate woman – who isn’t even graced with a name – who is married to Pony William, the ploughman who likes to sew his seed in more mares than the one he’s hitched to.
While he toils in the fields and stables she tries desperately to make sense of the world, struggling to find the right adjectives to describe the countryside and its creatures.
Her life is thrown into disarray when she comes face-to-face with the miller who appears to be the village bogeyman, believed responsible for killing his pregnant wife.
This is a community fuelled by ignorance and superstition but, pretty soon, despite their ferocious conversations, the woman finds herself drawn to him.
Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), the miller, is the future. He writes, what sounds like a diary, with pen and ink which the suspicious, almost illiterate, girl believes are instruments of the devil.
She finds herself in the middle of a carnal ménage à trois that resolves itself after she discovers her husband rutting in the stables with a local wench.
Visually and aurally the production is stunning and all credit to designer Soutra Gilmour, Tim Lutkin (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound).
The three characters drift in and out of scenes with a graceful and poetic movement. We see them silhouetted in the darkness, play out visions and dreams, and create moments of powerful imagery.
With knowledge comes power and, with the beginnings of an education, the woman makes some life-changing decisions. So, too, does the ambitious miller.
Knives In Hens – I have no idea what the title means – isn’t the most commercial of plays but the performances of Roddy, Cooke and Ryan are compelling, intense and very watchable.
Running at the Donmar Warehouse until October 7.
Knives In Hens
The Donmar Warehouse revival of David Harrower’s break-out play, Knives In Hens, is dark, intense and atmospheric with visceral turns by its cast of three.