KNIVES IN HENS
by David Harrower.
2 Stars **
The Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX to 7 October 2017.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 90 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7624.
Review: William Russell 22 August
Modern classic or no, a deeply depressing revival
Pretentious and preposterous Harrower’s grim dark play is set in rural somewhere – the accents of the cast are vaguely Yorkshire but not too thick as to upset a London audience – in non specific medieval times. First staged in 1995 at the Traverse in Edinburgh it was hailed as masterly albeit hard to understand, and has been revived a lot since.
But this latest one by Yael Faber, whose last staging here was a dire Salome at the National Theatre, proves an unrewarding ninety minutes slog to reach an ending which is never in doubt.
The performances by the cast of three are fine, the set by Soutra Gilmour conjures up the bleak rural world they inhabit effectively, the murky lighting by Tim Lutkin adds to the atmosphere, and there is a spine tingling score of sorts by Isobel Waller-Bridge to add the necessary sense of things out of kilter. But the play’s the thing, and what it boils down to is that Young Woman (a stoic Judith Roddy), married to Pony William (hirsute and hunky Christian Cooke), a ploughman and farmer besotted about his horses, discovers the power of language after being sent to deliver their grain to Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan, also hirsute and hunky) the local miller. Horn, an outcast from the village, can write. She regards it as sorcery, but the power of a hunk also works, and, as well as throwing a sheet to the floor, – just like Pony – on which they duly couple, he teaches her how to write. At the end she has been liberated.
Young Woman, who sports rather fetching medieval bikini beneath her drab gown, discovers she is more than someone to be tossed to the ground and ravished by Pony whenever he feels like it. Maybe it is a powerful and beautiful tale as some would have it, and certainly David Harrower has devised a way for these far from articulate people to talk, although working out what they are getting at is a bit like trying to make sense of some Anglo Saxon text, but far less rewarding.
The problem, whatever one thinks of the play, modern classic or pretentious bosh, is that Farber’s staging is mind numbingly tedious. As for the vast mill stone dominating the back of Gilmour’s set which trundles ominously across the stage from time to time – eventually it is used to liberate Young Woman – no flour ever came from it as there is nowhere to put the grain. Mill stones have holes in the middle and are never vertical. In other words the image, which looks powerful, is as phoney as the rest of the goings on. But to be fair, the cast make the best of a bad job and carry on regardless doing country chores like plucking a hen, peeling carrots, humping heavy sacks and pretending to have rough sex.
Young Woman: Judith Roddy.
Pony William: Christian Cooke.
Gilbert Horn: Matt Ryan.
Director: Yael Farber.
Designer: Soutra Gilmour.
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin.
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge.
Movement Director: Imogen Knight.
Costume Supervisor: Anna Josephs.
Dialect Coach: Michaela Kennen.
Fight Director: Kate Waters.