Knives in Hens
Time Out says
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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Knives in Hens was one of the most tiresome productions I have seen this year (close second withMy 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!!