David Harrower’s 1995 play offers a subtle exploration of repression and discovery in an isolated rural community some time before the last century. It centres on a young ploughman and his wife and their relationship with a miller, who they dislike but rely on to grind their grain.
Gradually it is revealed that all is not well in the marriage; the ploughman is controlling and unfaithful, and the wife is gradually drawn to the sceptical and free-spirited miller. Eventually the pair of them murder the husband, but their alliance is never more than flesh-deep and the play ends with the wife happily farming on her own and the miller leaving for the city.
The play’s language is sparse and poetic, with no words wasted. Thomasin Marshall’s subtle design of bleached boards with reeds peeping through is exploited beautifully by lighting designer Sonne Noppen, and Maura Guthrie’s evocative sound design offers a slightly menacing mood music.
The three central performances are all strong. Adam O’Brien, as the ploughman Pony William, brings a strong and sullen physical presence to the role whilst suggesting the tenderness which underlies his relationship with his horses, if not his wife. Miller Gilbert is a subtler part; his position on the margins of the village make him more difficult to read, and Liam Smith nicely draws out a wary independence in his performance.
The play really centres around the unnamed Young Woman's change from bridal innocence to matter-of-fact murderer. Helen Macfarlane’s performance opens a little too girlishly and wide-eyed to convince you that she has spent her life in the emotionally and spiritually arid environment of the play’s setting. However, once the action of the play accelerates, and the mood darkens, the portrayal grips; here less is definitely more as the performance moulds itself to the understatement and allusiveness of the language.
With such a slow-burning narrative, the challenge is to keep the momentum building, and Jez Pike’s direction maintains the focus of the piece without neglecting its quieter and more atmospheric elements.
Knives in Hens is another exciting studio exploration of a contemporary classic from a young Theatre by the Lake team.