Robert Tanitch reviews Knives in Hens at Donmar Warehouse, London WC2.
David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, which premiered in Edinburgh at the Traverse Theatre in 1995, is a haunting 90-minute play, acted without interval and not always easy to follow.
The auditorium is very dark and smells of smoke. There are just three characters, Medieval English peasants: an ignorant ploughman, his superstitious wife and a widowed miller, who can read and write.
The language they speak, stripped right back, is spare, poetic, archaic and muscular.
The trio seem to be re-enacting some ancient myth, a timeless fable of lust and murder. They could be taking part in some universal ritual, earthy and violent
Yael Farber’s production is notable for its physicality and rawness. The actors are notable for their primal strength. .
Soutra Gilmour’s setting, powerfully lit by Tim Lutkin, is notable for its darkness and starkness. The awesomely large grey rolling millstone might be some idol.
Judith Roddy is the fierce illiterate young woman with no name. She longs to express herself, but she hasn’t the vocabulary to enable her to do so. She lugs sacks of wheat to the miller.
Christian Cooke is the ploughman, a carnal brute, who sees his wife as a field he can plough. His love of his horse, not necessarily platonic, has earned him his nickname, Pony Williams. He doesn’t trust the miller whom he suspects will cheat him.
Matt Ryan is the miller who teaches the ploughman’s wife and gives her the vocabulary to enable her to take control of her life. In an erotic dream sequence in which the two men make love to her and become momentarily indivisible, he lets the grain run through his fingers and over her body as she lies on the floor.
David Horrower has written a serious play for serious theatregoers who are prepared to make an effort.