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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Knives In Hens
Donmar Theatre  Autumn 2017

David Harrower's 1995 drama may be an elementary love-triangle story overlaid with several levels of poetic and metaphoric meanings to make it seem more significant than it is. 

Or it may be an ambitious attempt to dramatise some original philosophical and psychological insights, hobbled by being attached to a banal plot. 

In either case, you can't escape the sense of a very heavy load of meanings being carried by a very fragile vehicle. It doesn't quite collapse under the weight, but it totters and stumbles its way through a very-long-seeming ninety minutes. 

In a small agricultural community some time in the pre-industrial past a ploughman and his wife lead a very basic existence. 

Work, food, sex are all experienced on the same near-mechanical level, and Harrower tells us the fault is not so much economic as their lack of the capacity to imagine anything more. 

And that leads to Harrower's major thesis, that the failure of imagination is itself the product of a lack of words. Words, he argues, are not just the expression of ideas, but the prerequisite for ideas – you can't think what you can't name. 

The village miller has words and thoughts. The discovery that he actually keeps a diary, writing down his observations of life so he can refer back and build on them, at first frightens the woman. But she senses the possibility of a richer experience for herself if she finds the words she needs. 

And here is where the two levels of the play really clash, because it is depressingly inevitable that she is going to be drawn more to the miller than to the ploughman and that the triangle is going to descend to soap-opera. 

But even before then, the playwright has to work too hard and too visibly to bind the play's story and its ideas together. The dialogue swings wildly between the portentously gnomic and the self-consciously 'poetic'. 

The woman is repeatedly compared to a fertile field waiting to be ploughed – yes, the symbolism does get that clumsily obvious – and a dream sequence has her imagining the miller pouring his flour between her legs – yes, it really does get that clumsily obvious. 

David Harrower's insights about the power and significance of words are intriguing. The plot he attaches them to is too cliche-ridden to support them. And his attempts to connect the two levels are clumsy and ineffective. 

Director Yael Farber does little to paper over the problems in the text (which also include a number of irrelevant side issues, like the village's hatred of the miller even before any of this happens), and even adds some of her own.

She and costume designer Anna Josephs have dressed and bearded the two men almost identically, evidently to make some point about their interchangeability. But the result is that when scenes open in half-light it takes a while to figure out who we are looking at. 

Christian Cooke (husband) and Matt Ryan (miller) work hard to convey some life behind the eyes of characters who are barely able to communicate. But only Judith Roddy is able to show us somebody at home inside through the growing light of self-awareness and ambition in her face.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Knives In Hens - Donmar Theatre 2017  
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