(Note: there are spoilers in this review). Every thing I see or know is put in my head by God. Every thing he created is there every day, sunrise to sundown, earth to sky. It cannot be touched or held the way I touch a table or hold the reins of a horse. It cannot be sold or cooked. His world is there, in front of my eyes. All I must do is push names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen. Harrower enacts these transitions and complexities with a text of startling elemental purity, stripped to a fierce poetic starkness. It is, on one level, simply a tragic fable: a young wife is seduced, and with her lover murders her husband. Yet reading the play is very like reading a poem that accurately and mercilessly pierces the deep places where the erotic and the sacred meet: and like a poem, the more you dig, the more you find. It's a work that reminds you of the mystery of human consciousness, bringing us up hard against the realities of birth, death, desire and awe.
Written in 1995, David Harrower’s first play, Knives in Hens, already has the status of a modern classic. This is no empty claim. It’s an extraordinary play: radical in its language, profound in its thought, and utterly original.
Set in an imaginary pre-industrial landscape, it follows a deeply strange love triangle between three characters: a ploughman, Pony William (Robert Menzies), his wife, known only as Young Woman (Kate Box) and a miller, Gilbert Horn (Dan Spielman). In this deceptively simple fable, Harrower explores the forces that underlie our conceptions of modern civilisation: the transition from a subsistence farming to more alienated forms of labour, from rural culture to urban civilisation, from feudal to modern consciousness.
Harrower exploits the fact that the miller was a figure of much superstitious hatred and fear. One reason was that millers made their living by taking a cut of the grain they milled, making their living, like the laird in the castle, from the sweat of others. Another was that millers, freed from the tyranny of subsistence labour, were often the only literate lay people in a village. They had characteristics of the priesthood and the aristocracy without being either, and so were unplaceable, neither one thing nor another. Certainly, the miller figures largely in folk tales (and even in The Lord of the Rings) as morally dubious, opaque and false.
Through the developing relationship between the miller and the Young Woman, Harrower tracks the massive shift in consciousness which accompanies literacy. In a culture that largely takes literacy for granted, it's easy to forget the radical social change it represents. Watching a small child struggle to learn to talk and read can give us some notion: the conceptual leap that connects sounds made by a human mouth to external objects, and then - even more radically - to marks on a page and abstract ideas, is one of the major evolutionary changes that defines us as human beings.
Written language permits us to externalise our inner worlds, and changes the nature of memory. In oral cultures memory is an art, because it is the entire repository of knowledge. Once knowledge can be written down that art is forgotten, because we no longer need it. Homer, who existed in a culture on the cusp between orality and literacy, begins his epic poems with an invocation of the Muse, whose mother is Mnemosyne, Memory, because although those poems were written, their primary transmission was in performance. The poet needed to know them by heart.
As Anne Carson points out, literacy radically transformed the nature of language itself, changing it from a fluid, transient phenomenon into an object. Written language shapes meaning into letters, phrases, sentences, that themselves feed back into our awareness of reality and change it, giving it an edge and a shape, defining one thing as like or unlike another, lifting us out of the Heraclitan flux of of the instinctually experienced material world.
It’s an ambiguous gift. As the Young Woman discovers, joyfully and painfully, the magical power of words as a means of realising her selfhood, Harrower show us that language is, as much as an expansion of consciousness, a crime against the authority of God. It is the snake in the garden, the apple of self awareness.
It is language, after all, that permits us to lie, as the Young Woman does at the end of the play. It allows us to create alternative realities, to be, as William tells the Miller, like God ourselves. Naming is an act of possession, an act of colonisation, as much as it is a liberation and a separation from the unsentient mass of material reality. It is language that creates a future and a past, and which puts a full stop at the end of our lives. Language is, as the Young Woman realises, a sacred act of violence against reality:
All of which makes it a very difficult and delicate play to stage. Despite remarkable performances from the cast, notably Menzies and Spielman, Geordie Brookman’s production realises maybe half its power. Most disappointingly, this production communicates very little of the subtext which I've teased out here; despite the murder in its centre, it maps the play as a simple journey towards self-awareness and liberation, and there is almost no sense at all of consciousness as a process of struggle.
One problem is Anna Cordingley’s design, a complex multi-level construction of steel, which at once constrains and alienates the action. The only real sense of intimacy is generated by Paul Jackson's moody lighting. It looks as if the action is taking place in an ancient sewer: the set is dominated by a huge pipe, which replaces the simple and powerful symbol of threshold that is the stable door. The concept is post-apocalyptic, a Riddley Walker kind of pre-industrial society, which builds an extra level of complexity on what is already a complex and difficult play. Here the anachronisms are obscuring rather than illuminating.
Another, practical problem is that the metal construction makes the set very noisy. Harrower’s wrought language emerges from profound silence, but there is little sense of this in either the design or the rhythms of the production. Andrew Howard's sound design is intrusive and unsubtle, varying between pseudo-Celtic melodies that swell up behind monologues and abstract electronic noises. Yet for all the noisiness, one of the puzzling aspects of this production is that in the few times when sound is specified in the text - William's dying screams, for example, or the deafening industrial cacophony of the mill - it is absent. Again, it all seems over-complicated, while at the same time missing the point.
Brookman has a first class cast, and the performances are undeniably powerful. But so much of the text's power seems muted: the play's frank eroticism, like its violence, is abstracted and distanced. Despite the sense of constraint, there are scenes which tap into the play's elemental potencies - most notably a dialogue between Gilbert and William, where the ploughman illuminates for the miller the mystery of the woman's body, the blasphemy and wonder of knowing that the Glory of God is not in God, but in His creation. In this crucial moment, the words of the ploughman awaken the Miller's desire, making him understand what it is he wants.
The pacing feels rushed and crowded, allowing little time for delicate shifts of relationship to occur on stage. It seems, more than anything, an anxious production, hurrying along for fear the audience might get bored. Unlike Peter Evans's production of Harrower's play Blackbird, which was an exemplary demonstration of how powerful language and performance can be if they are allowed their full presence, it felt as if an interpretation was being imposed, rather than being permitted to emerge. These words need space around them to achieve their full power, but here their resonance is muffled. Still, it remains a great play.
A shorter version of this review is in today's Australian.
Picture: Kate Box and Dan Spielman in Knives in Hens. Photo: Jeff Busby
Knives in Hens by David Harrower, directed by Geordie Brookman. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Andrew Howard, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Kate Box, Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman. Malthouse Theatre and State Theatre Company of South Australia. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 22. Space Theatre, Adelaide, August 26-September 12.
Every thing I see or know is put in my head by God. Every thing he created is there every day, sunrise to sundown, earth to sky. It cannot be touched or held the way I touch a table or hold the reins of a horse. It cannot be sold or cooked. His world is there, in front of my eyes. All I must do is push names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen.
Harrower enacts these transitions and complexities with a text of startling elemental purity, stripped to a fierce poetic starkness. It is, on one level, simply a tragic fable: a young wife is seduced, and with her lover murders her husband. Yet reading the play is very like reading a poem that accurately and mercilessly pierces the deep places where the erotic and the sacred meet: and like a poem, the more you dig, the more you find. It's a work that reminds you of the mystery of human consciousness, bringing us up hard against the realities of birth, death, desire and awe.