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Review: KNIVES IN HENS, Donmar Warehouse

"I must look close enough to discover what it is". Uttered by one of the characters in Knives in Hens, the same could be said of the play itself. Obscuring and drawn out at points, an impressive cast and some illuminating lighting shine through, rediscovering this classic in the Donmar Warehouse's revival.

Pony William and his wife play a crucial role in their community: ploughing the fields, they collect the grain to feed the town. These are their roles, according to William; the Young Woman should not question them or him. On the outskirts of town lives the despised miller Gilbert, a man of mystery and murmurs. Journeying to him, the Young Woman goes on another journey of sorts. As her world widens, so too do her words as she discovers an unclaimed power.

Knives in Hens was the first play by renowned Scottish playwright David Harrower, launching him onto the theatrical scene. He sets the action in an undefined location and time, which Soutra Gilmour reinforces in her set design. Grey, dark and desolate, the only notable piece of scenery is a miller's grindstone. Against this blank slate, certain themes speak out to audiences today. One in particular resonated strongly in Yaël Farber's production, that being the female voice.

Farber played with this idea earlier this year in the poorly received Salomé at the National Theatre and its eponymous, near silent heroine. "When a thing's got a name, it's got a use". Declared by Harrower's female protagonist, she has no name herself, her identity intrinsically bound to her husband. As she realises the power of words, she sets out to reclaim and rename herself, rewriting her own narrative.

In a play which places so much emphasis on the power of language, the opening sequence feels eerily silent. As the Young Woman plucks a hen, William labors in the fields, and both come together that evening. (Although, it's likely only one of them really comes, so to speak.) This opening sets up the dynamics of their relationship, contrasting starkly to that of her and the miller's. Discourse serves as intercourse for them, breathing and breeding new words together. Harrower's dialogue has flashes of Shakespeare here and is at its clearest.

At points though, the abstract language does obscure the action. Metaphors hang over the play and a soliloquy is repeated throughout. The Young Woman struggles to find the words to describe a cloud, the sun, a puddle. As the language breaks down, so too did I feel the play.

Similar moments of inaction and silence seem to grind proceedings to a halt. The opening feels drawn out, as laborious as the very work they're enacting. Set changes creep in this petty pace, the transition to the miller's house requiring two people who surely could have been obscured by lighting. A very slow fade to black produces smatters of applause prematurely, the audience mistaking it for the end.

Tim Lutkin's lighting does, however, illuminate Farber's vision on the whole. Darkness engulfs the majority of the piece, both figuratively and literally. The Young Woman initially seeks out light: in the field, in the Lord, in herself. Secrets lurk in the shadows, inhabited by the miller. Juxtapositions of light and dark haunt their scenes together, the lighting flickering here and there as she is tempted.

Judith Roddy gives a revelatory performance as the Young Woman. Emotionally draining, it's as if she is experiencing each new word for the very first time too. Despite the giant stone, it is Christian Cooke who dominates the stage. He controls every inch of the space, from his stable to his wife's personal boundaries. Cooke intimates intimidation, looming over Roddy with the slightest tilt of a head.

Matt Ryan is not the mysterious miller I had hoped for, a shade more melancholic. His early scenes with Roddy convey a real frisson, madly thrusting words at each other. Unfortunately, there is little chemistry beyond that, the Young Woman more interested in his pen than any other appendage.

Gifted a world of words, Farber doesn't quite twist the knife in deep enough. To "look close enough" could discover not just what Harrower's play is, but what it could be.

Knives in Hens at Donmar Warehouse until 7 October

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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