Written for What’s On Stage
The title of David Harrower’s 1995 debut Knives in Hens is an acutely powerful one prompting a reaction in people that cuts through understanding to a basic human shudder. It is a response that is in keeping with this play, where the written word is made sacred and the divine in nature is poetically evoked through the seemingly pedestrian act of naming.
Language is under the microscope here as sentences that have no space for florid ‘artistic’ themes transcend their mundane purpose to become detailed descriptions of greatness. A ploughman’s wife talks us through God’s omnipotent signature on nature with glistening eyes as she is tempted away from her husband ‘Pony’ William, his nickname darkly hinting at a stranger more primal connection than just owner and animal. Her temptation comes in the form of the local Miller, hated by the village for his lazy appropriation of their hard earned corn.
Darkly hinting could be Harrower’s tag line. As with Blackbird, his massive Edinburgh hit, Knives in Hens defies a standard explanation. He is bold enough to leave massive spaces around his lines, so that what hits one most tangibly, especially within this piece, is an incoherent and ephemeral feeling of the unknowable, of the omniscient presence of the ‘other’ that surrounds our seemingly normal characters. Maria Rijo’s warm cello playing and vocal work hauntingly underlines this presence throughout the piece.
Serdar Bilis’ shadowy but dynamic production lives up to its forceful, enigmatic title; the impressive creative team and cast once again proving that Studio 2 at The Arcola is surpassing its black box restrictions to become a 50 seat powerhouse.
Hannah Clark’s design crunches under foot with a thin green line representing a bare horizon that could mean either freedom or the wall of a cage. It is a blisteringly potent cast that is trapped within it. As ‘Pony’ William Nathaniel Martello-White’s every amorous word is dripped in contempt and Phil Cheadle Gilbert brings a bewildered softness to the tempting devil of a Miller who sets the young woman free. In this role Jodie McNee is enthralling, being at once earthy mother and impish fawn and each twitchy nerve ending in our own bodies tingles with her experience.
By marrying poetic abstraction with a visceral tale of betrayal and awakening, Harrower has created a compelling and driven piece of psychological study made of sturdy stuff. In this production at The Arcola, it has been given a rendition well worth its mettle by an outstanding creative team.
Running until the 27th February 2010. For tickets click here