Knives in Hens
TAG Theatre Company
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring
Ten years after the first production of David Harrower's Knives In Hens, the piece has become a modern classic. It has been translated for performance in over a dozen countries, and is apparently one of the most-performed Scottish plays outside of Scotland. The fact that it has not been produced in Scotland since its premiere means that TAG's tour is the first opportunity many Scots will have to see this work enacted on stage, rather than just read out of its published edition.
The production is fairly stylized, both in terms of design and performance, with all action taking place on a raked set designed by Neil Warmington. The set serves alternately as the home of the Young Woman (Rosalind Sydney) and her husband Pony William (Sam Heughan), the mill run by Gilbert Horn (John Kazek), the fields, and the stables.
The story is one of awakenings and realizations, and a young woman alternately pious and sinful. Sydney's interpretation of the character is an interesting one - she is at once naïve and insightful, and especially during the latter half of the play she does an excellent job of capturing the religious fervour that seems to drive this character toward her ultimate liberation.
As her husband, the alternately loving and oppressive Pony William, Heughan is gruff and taciturn. His performance as the small-minded, horse-obsessed man whose love of his animals may run a little too deep (or may be explained by an affair with another girl from the neighborhood) is utterly convincing, though the decision to hide his face behind a mop of curly hair for the entirety of the performance is one of the more irritating features of the production.
As the much-hated miller Horn, Kazek brings humanity but also a devlish streak to the character who enables the young woman to put names to and understand the world around her.
Knives in Hens is a story about using knowledge to journey away from the safety of the known world, and seeking a higher power through the conviction that words have power and mean specific things. TAG's production of the piece is effective and well-constructed, though it would have been nice to feel that the actions were a touch more spontaneous.
Happily, Harrower's words are still as moving and powerful as they must have been at the time of the play's writing. His use of language is poetic and appropriately bizarre, and themes of religious alienation and the desire for knowledge as a way to grow closer to God surely resonate as much with audiences of the mid-noughties as those of the mid-nineties.