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 of naming.
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 hard-earned corn.
'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.
- Honour Bayes