The title of David Harrower’s 1995 debut Knives in
Hens is an acutely powerful one. It prompts a reaction in people that
cuts through understanding and causes them to physically shudder. It is a response
that is in keeping with this play, where the written word is made sacred and
the divine in nature is poetically evoked through the seemingly pedestrian act
Language is under the microscope here as sentences that have no space for
florid ‘artistic’ themes transcend their mundane purpose to become
detailed descriptions of greatness. A ploughman’s wife talks us through God's creation of the universe with glistening eyes as she is tempted away from her husband, 'Pony' William, his nickname darkly hinting at a stranger, more
primal connection than that of just owner and animal. Her temptation comes in the form
of the local miller, hated by the village for his lazy appropriation of their
'Darkly hinting' could be Harrower’s tag line. As with
Blackbird, his massive Edinburgh
hit from 2005, Knives in Hens defies a standard explanation. He is
bold enough to leave massive spaces around his lines, so that what hits one
most tangibly, especially within this piece, is an incoherent and ephemeral
feeling of the unknowable, of the omniscient presence of the
‘other’ that surrounds our seemingly normal characters. Maria Rijo’s
warm cello-playing hauntingly
underlines this presence throughout the piece.
Serdar Bilis’s darkly dynamic production lives up to its forceful,
enigmatic title; the impressive creative team and cast once again proving that
Studio 2 at The Arcola is surpassing its black box restrictions to become a 50-seat powerhouse.
The sand of Hannah Clark’s design crunches under foot; a thin green line
represents a bare horizon that could mean either freedom or the perimeter of a
cage. It is a blisteringly potent cast that is trapped within it. As 'Pony', Nathaniel Martello-White’s every amorous word drips with
contempt and Phil Cheadle brings a bewildered softness to the tempting
devil of a miller who sets the young woman free. In this role Jodie McNee is
enthralling, being at once earth mother and impish fawn, making each twitchy nerve
ending in the audience's bodies tingle with her experience.
By marrying poetic abstraction with a tale of betrayal and awakening, Harrower
has created a compelling and driven psychological study.
In this production it has been given a rendition well worth its mettle by an
outstanding creative team.