Thursday, 31 August 2017

Theatre review: Knives in Hens

Wheel! Of! Misfortune!

After joyless South African director Yaël Farber royally shat the bed at the National a few months ago, she was lucky to have her next London gig already lined up, or I don’t think we’d have seen her here again for some time. In any case I saw her production of Knives in Hens at the Donmar as giving her a last chance before deciding if I just don’t see what others apparently see in her, and putting her on the same shelf as Samuel Beckett. David Harrower’s play is set in a non-specifically pre-industrial North of England, a place dominated by work and a combination of austere religion and superstition. Judith Roddy plays an unnamed Young Woman (significantly, only one person in the play gets to know her name,) married to ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke,) so called because he may or may not fuck his plough-horses.

The village they live in is an insulated community, and they hate Gilbert, the miller (Matt Ryan,) whose mill is by necessity a few miles out by the river; the community spreads rumours that he murdered his wife and child, steals the grain he mills, and can perform dark magic.

When Pony William has to stay at home to tend to a pregnant mare, he sends his wife to get their grain milled into flour on her own. She’s terrified of the miller and keeps her distance, considering the fact that he owns a pen blasphemous (…something about god putting the thoughts into his head and it being wrong to take them out of it and write them down?) But soon he convinces her to write her name for him and some thoughts of her own, and eventually to also sex him up.

Soutra Gilmour’s earthy design is dominated by a monolithic millstone that occasionally rumbles across the back of the set, and the oppressive atmosphere is complemented by familiar Farber touches of ambient noise, murky lighting and a ritualistic pace. Knives in Hens is a play I’ve heard mentioned a lot but never seen before, and this isn’t the production to make me see what the fuss is about: There’s a poetry and subtlety to the writing and characterisations – although Pony William is gruff and sees his wife largely as someone to help him with his work, there’s a lot of genuine love and attraction between them as well, so while the miller is in some ways freeing the woman from her limited life, Pony William doesn’t necessarily represent the worst of that. So it’s hard to see – SPOILER ALERT! – him being crushed to death by a millstone in a pit of shit as being a particularly fitting end for him.

The trouble is the production’s about as subtle as the millstone, so every time Harrower’s text seems to be revealing what it’s about, Farber obscures it when she should clarify. Although presumably there was one or both involved in the production, there’s no assistant director or dramaturg credited on the website, and given the director’s work strongly suggests she has no sense of humour, she really could have done with someone in a position to point out that a dream sequence where the miller jizzes flour onto the woman would probably end up being funny in the wrong ways. Add to that the fact that Yaël Farber could challenge Gary Barlow for the title of person most likely to think “boring” was a compliment, and I think it might be time to add her to that shelf to keep Beckett company.

Knives in Hens by David Harrower is booking until the 7th of October at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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