Yael Farber’s staging of Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse:
Entering the Donmar Warehouse under the cover of darkness with thick smog circulating round the small confines of the theatre, one is introduced to one of Knives in Hens’ major themes –claustrophobia and darkness- before the play has even begun. Indeed, Harrower’s 1995 classic is a play steeped in symbolism and Yael Farber’s dark and earthy staging is potent at times but, much like the smog, begins to suffocate the audience.
Knives in Hens is a complex play set in what could be Medieval Yorkshire and revolves around the relationship between Pony William (Christian Cooke) and his wife, the symbolically unnamed ‘Young Woman’ (Judith Roody). It approaches issues such as female empowerment, enlightenment, literacy, and power through the framework of a fable. Farber very successfully pairs the script with a sensual and multi-sensory staging experience which works powerfully in the Donmar’s sometimes awkward space. Primal passions are contrasted with nuances of the learned Miller (Matt Ryan), who although he is seen to liberate the oppressed ‘Young Woman’ from her disloyal and emotionally negligent husband, is far from the hero of the piece. Soutra Gilmour’s use of a giant millstone which growls and rumbles in the background before being the instrument used in the play’s climax is continually effective. The use of light, or lack thereof, further creates an impression of the play’s medieval setting as a time of dark superstition and ignorance. The cast are all excellent – particularly considering how the script views their characters as representative of different aspects of human nature, rather than complete individuals.
Everything in the play is steeped in a wider significance and I felt at times that the play’s heightened sense of self-importance allowed it to descend into overindulgence. For example, whilst the play revolves around the issue of female oppression – both sexually and intellectually – instructing the otherwise exemplary Roody to writhe around moaning in a pile of flour seemed somewhat to labour the point.
Knives in Hens is by no means entertaining, but is a powerful experience nevertheless, and features some excellent individual performances matched by inspired staging.
Showing at The Donmar Warehouse from 17 August 2017 – 7 October 2017
KNIVES IN HENS
Evenings Mon-Sat: 7.30pm
Matinees Thu and Sat: 2.30pm
Latecomers will not be admitted.