Knives in Hens

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Yaël Farber directs David Harrower’s stark, strange modern classic

Star director Yaël Farber had a lousy start to the summer: after years of almost unanimous praise for her work, her epic National Theatre drama ‘Salomé’ crashed and burned, dragged under by a hideously portentous script that Farber wrote herself.

Handily for her, a shot at redemption was only a couple of months off. Though only a fraction of the numbers who endured ‘Salomé’ will get to see Farber’s punch-to-the-guts revival of David Harrower’s ‘Knives in Hens’, this is an evening that’s brutal in all the right ways.

If you’ve seen Farber’s work before you kind of know what you’re in for: a monolithic total theatre in which a rumbling, ever-present score from Isobel Waller-Bridge, beautiful but almost imperceptible lighting from Tim Lutkin, and Soutra Gilmour’s imposing set – a giant millstone that looks like a sacrificial altar – combine in a work that feels as much like a ritual as a piece of theatre.

Harrower’s 1995 play is set in pre-industrial Britain and follows an unnamed Young Woman (Judith Roddy) who lives in a harsh, unsentimental marriage with her ploughman husband Pony William (Christian Cooke). She is strong, but he dominates her by defining her world, physically and mentally, controlling her, delineating her, setting her boundaries and telling her who she is. But he makes a mistake when he sends her to take grain to the hated local miller Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), who gruffly introduces her to language and literacy.

Harrower’s language is curt and harsh: the cast hack the story out with it, carving the air with terse, hard, poetic interactions.

Roddy is excellent; the Young Woman is oppressed, but she never feels like a victim, and if she submits to William it’s only in the way that a caged animal submits to its keeper. Cooke is also impressive; his William a creature of pure, ferocious instinct, yet tempered by the occasional hint that he might be painfully aware of a world bigger than his jealously guarded territory.

There’s little arguing that all Farber’s productions tend to dip into the same box of tricks; but equally she only directs work suited to her earthquake-intense, super-stylised approach. ‘Knives in Hens’ is no exception: Farber amplifies the primeval intensity of the language to the point that the characters feel like warring avatars of human nature. It is about male attempts to dominate women through language, but we never doubt the power that the woman has to strike back. It’s quintessential Farber, no doubt about that, but it’s good to have her playing to her strengths again.


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4 out of 5 stars

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I really enjoyed Knives in Hens, even though the story was not an easy one to stomach. The acting of all three of the casts was top notch. I really loved the giant mill that was part of the set, and the lighting was excellent in the play. It really helped to transport you back into the dark ages and helped to set the gloomy tone. I think this deserves a transfer and would work on a larger stage as well. If it does transfer I would highly recommend it! 


The setting for the day is a pre-industrial village; the underwear of the cast is 2017 H&M; the tattoos of the miller are post-ironic hipster (one presumes). Don't let that put you off (although they certainly distract). 

This play, at its heart, concerns empowerment through language - sort of Pygmalion meets The Piano. 

Flippancy aside, there are complexities here that belie the simplicity of the main theme. The miller is no innocent bookish loner; the wife of the ploughman becomes complicit in murder; the ominous darkness of the staging reflects how language is not just a path to enlightenment - it can give tongue to darker emotions hitherto un-expressible. 

Yael Farber's 'Salome' employed showers of sand which enveloped the stage, cast and presumably the patience of the stage management team; here flour is liberally sprinkled and rubbed into the female protagonist. 

But again I am being flippant. 

This is a powerful production and, as is always the case with the Donmar, well worth seeing. 

Knives in Hens was one of the most tiresome productions I have seen this year (close second with 

My Country: A Work in Progress - the dreadful play about Brexit at the National Theatre). It was a bland and ponderous dirge from beginning to end. I concede visually it was magnificent, but narratively we were dragged through treacle - no variety of pace, no dark and light - even when the sun came up!  I have seen three plays at the Donmar this year and none has been positively memorable... mediocre at best. (Joan and Arturo Ui). Come on Donmar!! 

Knives in Hens is a deeply ominous and brooding piece of theatre. I was hypnotised by it from beginning to end.

The cast of three put in incredible performances, with Judith Roddy particularly being nothing short of mesmerising, and they, despite being a small cast, manage to conjure up the idea of a small, superstitious community on the edge of change.

The set, as well, is another example of the Donmar using their tiny space to present something visually spectacular with the huge millstone looming over the stage, and the lighting design makes the shadows a fundamental part of the aesthetic: it's really beautiful.

This feels like a return to form for Yaël Farber, after a very shaky Salome at the NT earlier in the year.


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