Review: Knives in Hens, Donmar Warehouse

Knives in Hens and I are almost exactly the same age, right down to the month. David Harroway’s play was first performed in Edinburgh in 1995 – so I can’t pretend to have been there, however I’d hazard a guess that the play has taken on a new meaning since its premiere.

Arguably the biggest change in the past twenty-two years is that we’ve grown more and more accustomed to barely having a thought without writing it, typing it, sharing it. It’s an entitlement – to curate and share our lives. What would be made of that in a society where the written word is scarce? In Knives in Hens, Horrowar makes us see life through the eyes of a character known as ‘Woman’ who, God fearing and suspicions, when confronted by paper and pen, is inclined to think dark magic is about.

The woman is married to ploughman, Pony William. He’s a mixture of rough and occasionally tender but possibly up to no good with a village girl. They live in a grafting, pre-industrial, rural village, the kind of world where ‘you go straight to places, woman, you walk and don’t stand’, as  controlling William says to his wife – daydreaming is not on the agenda. When the horse is ill, it falls to the Mrs to take grain to the reclusive Miller – reluctantly, because he’s viewed with suspicion by the whole village and she ‘hates him more then anything I can name’.

Which is exactly the point, because names and language is the play’s preoccupation. The Miller has ink and paper, he records his every thoughts – a revelation!  And by persuading the woman to write down her name, she begins to be freed from her suspicion and entrapping way of life.

It’s a love triangle, basically, but with puritan uncertainty and risk. The actors’ breathe earthy life into Harrower’s language, which is stripped back, yet somehow wouldn’t feel out of place in a Greek drama. Christian Cooke gives the potentially brutal William some moments of gentleness, Matt Ryan is all brooding intensity as the outlier Miller, but the show is really owned by Judith Roddy as the Woman. Not to mention a fourth character, a giant milling wheel that towers over the tiny Donmar. If you can’t have a gun that doesn’t go off by the final act, then you can’t have a wheel that doesn’t turn. With an enormous, eerie groan, it rumbles across the stage, in stark contrast to the other significant item, Miller’s delicate ink pen.  

Knives in Hens is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until October 7.

Photo: Marc Brenner