Theatre review - Knives in Hens

David Harrower’s visceral play opens with a raw act of passion and ends on a note of defiance. Set in a medieval rural backwater, we follow the fortunes of a young, god-fearing woman (Judith Roddy), married to a ploughman, Pony William (Christian Cooke).

It’s a simple existence, verging on the bestial, in which the nameless woman serves her husband and the land: “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow.” She intones to herself as she sets about her work. She yearns to describe everything she sees around her and to articulate her feelings.

The villagers are bound by their superstition and prejudices and outsiders are rarely tolerated. But when the woman meets the local miller, Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), recently widowed and vilified by the community for his love of books, another world suddenly opens up to her.

William and Gilbert are physically similar. What differentiates them is the quill pen that the miller offers the woman. In writing about herself she gains self-awareness and with that comes power. But her new knowledge swiftly becomes tainted by violence.

First staged to great acclaim in 1995, Harrower’s multi-layered drama is full of surprises. We realise it is not love that the woman desires, she rejects any possibility of being defined by a man, but a role for herself. With that comes a name and advancement.

Flawless performances, Yael Farber’s terrific staging, Soutra Gilmour’s magnificent set – mud, a small pond, hints of cobbles, dominated by a giant millstone – and Tim Lutkin’s atmospheric lighting make this a memorable evening.

Donmar Warehouse UNTIL OCTOBER 7
Box Office 020 3282 3808

Originally published by Camden Review