David Harrower’s 1995 debut play. Knives in Hens, is a harsh, raw piece of writing. In a superstitious, pastoral age the village ploughman, “Pony” William, sends his young wife to take their corn to be ground at the mill. The villagers’ relationship with the miller is one of mutual antipathy and hate on their part – but she is intrigued by his ability to write.
Director Lu Kemp’s tight, muscular production turns sparse Harrower’s text, about the power of language and the coming of the industrial age, to the service of the female voice.
Jessica Hardwick has a fierce intensity as the unnamed woman. She’s a deeply loyal woman but as she begins to find names for things – and then for actions and emotions – her loyalties shift from her man to the truth.
Rhys Rusbatch conveys a sense of a casual violence as William. He treats his wife as his chattel, a lesser being than his horses, even though she is very much her own woman. Michael Moreland has a mocking attitude as the miller, Gilbert Horn, but there is respect there too.
Jamie Vartan’s bleak set transforms the stage into the inside of a concrete corn silo. Simon Wilkinson’s cold, misty lighting creates a haze of dust. The set is lit from above when in the mill, and from the side when the action ventures into William’s stable, casting shadows up the rear wall.
This is a profound, breathtaking production. Its only false note a musical chord swelling under the woman’s final speech, detracting from her triumph over her jarring environment.