Knives in Hens

David Harrower’s debut play, Knives in Hens, made a big splash back in 1995, recognised as a modern classic which has since seen revivals by companies as diverse as the National Theatre of Scotland (in 2011) and, last year, Donmar Warehouse. It’s a brutal, raw script; a love triangle set in a mud-splattered rural world where superstitions are plentiful and a custom of hate is passed from one generation to the next without question.

This is a thoughtful, starkly beautiful production

Our focus is first on the ploughman “Pony” William and his young, hard-working wife. We’re never told her name—ironic given her own innate desire to learn the world and understand God by naming things. (When her husband says she’s “like a field”, she insists: “I’m like nothing but me.”) Later, when she’s sent with their corn to the mill, she’s reminded to hate and not trust the miller, Gilbert Horn. Partly, it’s to ensure the miller doesn’t take more than his legally due share of their ground flour; partly, it’s because he’s a man who writes and reads.

Ignorance and acceptance of “how things are” is at the core of the harsh world into which this Young Woman was born. Yet despite her own initial fear and revulsion of what putting ink on paper can do, the Miller successfully challenges and encourages this ploughman’s wife to start writing down her own words and thoughts, to find her own voice. It’s the beginnings of a secretive relationship with the Miller that’s far more than just sexual—although this is, of course, a part of it. In her blossoming as a woman and individual, she changes all their lives forever.

Perth Theatre’s Artistic director, Lu Kemp, creates a stark, memorable production that expertly matches Harrower’s sparse, emphatic dialogue. She has cast incredibly well: Jessica Hardwick gives the Young Woman real heart and intensity; she instantly holds your attention, if not initially your affection. Rhys Rusbatch, meantime, embodies a weary sense of entitlement and suppressed violence, a husband who treats his horses with more care and attention than his wife. Michael Moreland, in contrast, gives us the initially defensive miller—a wiry man seemingly made of ground-down dust—who nevertheless sees something in the Young Woman that her husband doesn’t.

Jamie Vartan’s brutal set – grey, stone-like, with a central performance area matched by a circular hole of darkness overhead – is impressive enough, but Simon Wilkinson’s subtle lighting – switching smoothly between a misty hoar, near darkness, and the golden hues of a beautiful sunrise – makes its strong geometric shapes even more memorable. This is a thoughtful, starkly beautiful production; an impressive calling card from the recently refurbished Perth Theatre, a welcome declaration of ambitious intent.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

A dream-play, a thriller, an old-fashioned love triangle meld in this unsettling tale about the constraints and liberating possibilities of language, and a journey from ignorance to knowledge in a nameless young peasant woman—a modern classic.