Knives in Hens at the Donmar WarehouseCultureTheatre
Sour, earthy smells mingle with the acrid tang of smoke. A giant wheel is barely lit from behind, redolent of the recent solar eclipse. Action becomes ritual, a way for time to churn. A Young Woman (Judith Roddy) aids her ploughman husband Pony (Christian Cooke), unable to imagine a world beyond what lies in front of her eyes. That is, until she meets a miller (Matt Ryan) with a pen.
Though the Donmar Warehouse is far, far smaller than the National Theatre’s cavernous Olivier, this doesn’t feel like scaled-down Yaêl Farber. The ceremonial intensity found in her Les Blancs or (ugh) Salome is still present. An insistent, plaintive score from Isobel Waller-Bridge, the space-filling intimacy of Soutra Gilmour’s set and the perpetual dusky darkness of Tim Lutkin’s lighting all enhance the portentousness that is par for the course with Farber. Yet while Salome was swallowed whole by its own pretentiousness, Knives in Hens withstands such treatment due to the thematic richness of playwright David Harrower’s central conceit.
Language breeds imagination and therefore possibility. Hard borders of understanding melt away; the world is suddenly malleable, a lie a form of cosmic manipulation. With every new word or idea blossoming from her lips Roddy transforms. Fragile bones are replaced by inky steel – language doesn’t make her new, but unlocks what’s already there. It sharpens the knife of her being.
Roddy’s Young Woman is caught between symbols, her husband’s animal instinct and the miller’s emotional introspection. Sex with each man captures their essence. Violent rutting, with no real sign of consent, versus a post-coital examination that turns what was once burning hot cold. Spiritual earthiness clashes with secular scepticism. The sweat of the rural growls at the technologies it relies on. The miller is the industrialised man free to think, to dream.
Farber marries Harrower’s exploration of the emancipatory power of words with her own striking visual language. Flour, dirt, feathers – these become elemental, the fabric of her stark landscape. The miller’s wheel at the back of the stage looms like a dried-out sun, a manhole cover to freedom waiting to be pushed aside.
Knives in Hens is at the Donmar Warehouse from 17th August until 7th October 2017. For further information or to book visit here.