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A CurtainUp London Review
Knives in Hens
"Is that not what your village believes, that when a thing has got a name, it has got a use?" — Gilbert Horn
Knives in Hens
Judth Roddy as Young Woman and in the background Christian Cooke as Pony William (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Although David Harrower's play opens with a woman plucking a hen, I wondered whether his title owes something to his native Glasgow where "hen" is a term of endearment for a woman but later that thought is displaced when the woman only known as Young Woman talks about "how I push my knife into the stomach of a hen".

I missed this play on its first inception in the West End in 1996 or I might not have found myself going to see it in 2017. We are told it is set maybe 500 years ago in a medieval agricultural community, originally in Scotland. Yael Farber's dark and gloomy production means there is little to distract from the sound of words and it is these words which the Young Woman (Judith Roddy) is anxious to learn and develop and use. Her marital type relationship is with a peasant ploughman, Pony William (Christian Cooke) so called because he understands and tends to horses.

Within a few minutes, William has returned from the fields or the stables, where he toils, and jumps on the young woman for sexual gratification. She doesn't seem to mind too much and we, the audience, are treated to the sight of Cooke's splendidly curvaceous buttocks. Sadly there are no more of these glimpses in store for the next 85 minutes. She is asking William for the ways to describe a shining pool of water. "Puddle" is the word he repeatedly offers, reducing her search for something more poetic and descriptive to the merely muddy.

Because William is tending to a pregnant mare, the woman is tasked with dragging the sacks of corn to the mill for grinding. Gilbert Horn the miller (Matt Ryan) appears to be an outcast, despised by the village probably because as the owner of the only mill for miles around he can charge what he likes for producing flour. The set is dominated by a beautiful large orb with light breaking on one arc of its rim. I thought this might be a representation of the full solar eclipse that has been capturing the imagination of the Americas this week, but that is before they put shoulder to the wheel to laboriously turn the giant millstone.

The Young Woman, whom the playwright has not given a name, lists her daily labours, every day packed with hard physical work. Her status is little more than a beast of burden but it is the acquisition of language which fascinates her. The miller unusually, and slightly incredibly, possesses a library of books and can tell stories to the woman. Maybe he wanted to own his eponymous tale in the volume of Chaucer? Sex between the miller and the Young Woman is symbolised in this production by the miller popping up in the Circle, sprinkling her pudenda with flour from a great height while she gyrates from the pelvis.

The performances are excellent but, for me, Knives in Hens takes stultifying, experiential life in a rural backwater to new depths. If you want to be grateful for your overstuffed, technology crowded, urban, emancipated existence, then go and see this play.

For my review of David Harrower's Blackbird in 2006 which I thought was most interesting, go here.

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Knives in Hens
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Yael Farber
Starring: Christian Cooke, Judith Roddy, Matt Ryan
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Tim Lutkin
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Movement: Imogen Knight
Composition: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 7th October 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th August 2017 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden, Leicester Square)
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