Knives in Hens @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast includes
Nathanial Martello-White, Jodie McNee, Phil Cheadle, Maria Rijo

directed by
Sedar Bilis
David Harrowers 1995 debut play, first performed at the Traverse in Edinburgh, is as rich as the earth on which its characters depend. It is a pulsing piece of writing, alive with wonder and the power of words.

The play is set in a rural pre-industrial landscape where language still has a near scared potency.

The naming of things, the spilling of ones thoughts and ones self onto paper, is an act akin to what God does. The gift of the written word allows people to tear themselves open and look inside, to question what was once accepted, to buck against what was once thought to be as solid and immoveable as stone.
At centre of the play is a triangular relationship between the village ploughman, known as Pony William because of his way with the horses, his young wife, and the local miller. Literate and knowledgeable about the outside world, the miller leads an isolated life. His work, which is removed from the toil of the fields, and his power his ownership and control over the apparatus for turning grain to flour – means he is viewed by the villagers with suspicion, if not outright hatred.

To the ploughmans wife, the miller is a source of superstition. She fears him and yet is also fascinated by him; with his books and his ink-pen, he holds the keys to something vital and she knows it. He becomes a catalyst to her awakening, the blossoming of her sense of self. The young woman does not cease to be a part of a constant, turning world, driven by the shifting of the seasons, the breaking of day and the needs of the fields, but Harrower shows her waking to her place and power within this world.

Serdar Billis atmospheric revival doesnt quite probe as deeply into this plays rich ground as it might, but he grasps the particular rhythms of the dialogue and gives them space and shape. Designer Hannah Clarke has turned the Arcolas Studio 2 into a dark, evocative space. The stage is loamy and soft underfoot, blurring the line between outside and in. The lighting is low and theres a sense of oppressiveness about the space that suits the piece.

The cast all seem comfortable with the weight of the text and Jodie McNee is particularly striking as the young woman slowly making connections with her inner and outer worlds. Phil Cheadle, as the miller, displays a nonchalance to his situation that masks his sense of loss and separation and Nathaniel Martello-White, as the ploughman, conveys a quiet confidence in his view of the world. Live cello accompaniment is provided by Maria Rijo, who sits clad in black at the side of the stage. Her music never clashes with the language, but the playing at times feels repetitive – theres little variance in mood or tone.

The productions main flaw is perhaps an over-reliance on atmosphere, on creating a strong visual sense of this dark world full of things to fear, and the production could do with greater degree of clarity, especially in the later scenes where crucial events and the sense of coming change are somewhat muffled and muddled.

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