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Knives in Hens review at the Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘beautiful and brutal’

Christian Cooke and Judith Roddy in Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Marc Brenner
Christian Cooke and Judith Roddy in Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Marc Brenner
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It looks like a Yael Farber production. It sounds like one too. It evens smells like one, all earthy and damp. And it features all those motifs - that intensely close, tactile, even erotic connection with the elements and earth - that Farber returns to so much.

Often it's in service of some astonishing piece of theatre that gets under the skin and keeps digging – see 2015's Les Blancs or 2012's Mies Julie. At other times, as with Salome earlier this year, the hauteur feels like too much to no avail. This revival of David Harrower's 1995 play is somewhere in between the two extremes, powerful and raw, certainly, but offering no huge revelation about this remarkable play.

What Farber’s production does do is find and expose the play's feminist veins, as an unnamed woman in medieval times, married to brutish ploughman Pony William, learns about sex, heresy, violence, language and, ultimately, emancipation.

Set in some medieval village, the play follows this young woman as she talks to her husband about the proper names for things. She only knows the language necessary for her existence – tan, tallow, pluck – but nothing that can express metaphor or beauty.

Forced to take grain to an outcast miller who lives beyond the village she discovers that he owns a pen, and is daring to write words down permanently in ink. She sees this as something evil, until the beguiling notion of expressing herself takes hold and she starts an affair with him.

With its clipped and poetic language, the play is shrouded in mysticism. It lends language, and the very idea of it, a dark, dangerous edge. Harrower suggests that it is language that can free the young woman from her husband.

 

Farber and the cast bring brutishness, sometimes brutality, to Harrower's strange text. The way Christian Cooke as Pony William moves and speaks with his wife is always on the cusp of violence: he shouts when she irritates him, and lunges down her throat when he kisses her.

Judith Roddy offers a strong performance as the young woman, initially submissive to her husband until, frustrated at the inability to express herself, she turns that frustration into aggression.

But even at 90 minutes, the play drags a little, and the Yorkshire accents feel forced as if employed only to suggest some generic rural setting.

Still, Farber parses text and transforms it into imagery like few directors can. Take a picture at any one moment of the production and it would be beautiful, elevated by Tim Lutkin’s soft orange and yellow lighting that makes the stage look dirty and dim, and Soutra Gilmour’s set perfectly recreating a cobbled medieval yard, right down to the clumps of moss clinging to the edge of a little pond.

Verdict
Haunting, atmospheric production of David Harrower’s play about the power of language from director Yael Farber
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