Review: Knives in Hens ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: Knives in Hens

(Note: there are spoilers in this review).

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:

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.

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.


Jane said...

I find it odd that this play was directed without the necessary pauses and silences, as in Metro Street in Adelaide earlier this year, Geordie Brookman (who you’ve mislabelled in your tags) showed an acute understanding of how silences should work with the text - both on stage in between the characters, and in demands from the audience. In a musical with 16 odd songs, I would say at least six did not ask for, or receive, applause from the audience - the silence and the stillness of the music and the words which had just been were more important than getting a strong audience applause, and I thought this was great on Brookman's (and Matthew Robinson's) behalf, as many musicals that I see (which is significantly lower than plays) seem to demand a reaction after every piece. In many scenes words were allowed to hang and sit in the silences, and yet there was always a balance in scenes with humour and fights – it was really a beautifully directed piece.

Still, I am looking forward seeing this play when it is in Adelaide. Hopefully after the Melbourne run the silences will be discovered.

Born Dancin' said...

It only came to me the next day that one of the things the set most resembles is the inside of grain silo. Which would be cute if intended but, yeah, it really didn't work for me either. The pacing and silences, on the other hand, are something that could developed throughout the run.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jane and BD. (Apologies to Geordie, I think I mixed him up with the poet Jordie Albiston. Though neither need take offence...)

I read the text the night before and all I could think about was the silence in it. Reading a text before I see a production is something I seldom do, but since it's such a dense play, I wanted it clear in my head as I was slated to file a review the following morning. And so no doubt the lack of silence struck me particualrly forcibly. It's an abstract as well as a literal quality in the play - the silence before and after language, the silence of the mystery that cannot be spoken of. (And as our man Wittgenstein says, must be passed over in silence...)

And yes, those things can certainly be deepened during the run.

Anonymous said...

I saw Knives in Hens on a preview night and even though the production was "hurrying along for fear the audience might get bored" this was the exact reason I WAS bored.
No consideraion was given to the audience in this production and it felt, for the most part, as if we might not even have been there. We were not allowed access to the many layered meanings of the text, which I've no doubt the actors and director explored throughly in rehearsals. To my mind, theatre is as much the relationship of the actors to the audience as the actors to each other yet one half of this realtionship seemed to have been ignored. Everything was played in, not out, meaning was guarded rather than shared and as a result we were rendered superflous to the action on stage.
I am certainly not am impatient theatre-goer but impatience was all I felt with Brookman's production. As you said Alison, the nuance of such a dense, poetic text was really underdeveloped; or else underplayed. While I don't doubt the talent of the actors involved, to me the problem lay with Brookman's direction. Long speeches often felt generalised, dialogue that should have been sharp fell flat. And depsite my best efforts to connect with what was going on a mere 5 metres away, at times all I heard was "blah blah blah"...
This was SUCH a shame considering the quality of the text and it was a real disappointment that such a talented cast was allowed to fall flat so dramatically. Or not dramatically, in this case.
I really hope some major developments are made as the season progresses, a good play should never go to waste. But as it is, I was uninspired by Knives in Hens.


Anonymous said...

Yes, a miasma of misjudgement.

One would like to ask the director et al why spend so much time looking deeply into a text? Its written, finished, the work has a shape and a place in the don't really need to do much but get the actors to learn lines and put them in places on stage.

Why this thing had that set design is beyond me...budget anyone on that disaster?

I wonder also at the voices, they all the three of them sounded like they were down the mall in wagga (or even wodonga). With the nature of the text and the use of language as an aesthetic - you actually need to act the voices, otherwise the words do not work.

also, those actors are very good actors, but man, how shit were they all in this thing?

a misjudged palaver of nothing.

oh, and finally, I remain unconvinced the play is any good. I couldn't work out if this was an average production of a bad play, or a good production of a bad play, or a bad production of a good play or a ... you get my drift. It's just when the girl wrote that whole monologue, how'd she know how to write for chrissakes? I mean this may be well the way the show has been done, but when she's never even held a pen before and then writes something worthy of...well worthy of you croggon...then I think, and correct me if I'm wrong...but that's just shiite.

much love, and all that.

DrCraniax said...

I too saw this play on opening night, and I hate to say it but I've never been so bored by a piece of theatre.
The script itself is wonderful. There's so much potential there for the audience to be immersed in Harrower's text and its themes of superstition... But after 5 minutes of monotonous dialogue from Kate Box, I nearly fell asleep. Literally. I felt like she was the Richard Kingsmill of theatre. (Sorry, Kate.)
It seemed there was little connection with the text at all, with a pace that seemed to be too fast and too slow at the same time. I felt the direction in this piece was really to blame. These are all talented actors and I felt there was no opportunity for any of them to really perform. Kate's monologues especially seemed to just blend into the background of people coughing and shuffling in their chairs. As for silences, the only ones I noticed were between the Woman and the Miller - which were so drawn out that their dramatic effect was completely lost. I was really disappointed by this piece.
Oh god, and the ACCENTS?! What an amazingly appalling decision. So extremely out of place! So, SO inappropriate for the text... Made the already flat dialogue even more difficult to draw any emotion from.
The set design looked great but was rather impractical in terms of creating the world in which Knives in Hens takes place. It gave the idea of the Ploughman and Woman living in a sewer inhabited by horses.
Overall, while I'd like to see these actors again, I think Geordie's is a name I'll keep an eye out for if only to avoid.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen this one yet and think I will now pass. I don't know Ms box but I do know of those male actors and they can vary enormously according to how well they are directed. I have seen both Spielman and Menzies be wonderful and have also seen them be terrible. Sounds like in this they are closer to the latter. said...

It felt like the play was meant for another script, but somehow the actors learned lines from another one.

Very disappointing.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the comments, all. So it wasn't just me then. I'd defend the performances here: I thought them good, even very good at times, although it took me a while to warm to Kate Box (and even so, I couldn't see any shape, as it were, in her journey ... at the beginning she seemed like a contemporary liberated woman in peasant dress, which I think is a misreading of the scene). But you had to fight to relate to the actors; they were totally hampered by the design, which seemed to determine an awful lot about this production.

Anon, one of the pleasures of writing this review was the excuse to read this play closely and to think more about it. The more I looked at it, the more I admired it. Yes, it's a fable, and it has anachronisms in it (I think Harrower himself is unsure whether pens were invented in the 1500s). But that needn't be a problem: the point is that the play enacts all sorts of things, not least the magical (I mean this literally) qualities of language. There are reasons why religions and magic are so deeply embedded with the word, a reason why bards were - and still are in some places - credited with magical powers, and this play taps right into that ancient, sacred and transgressive power. Which is also about things like birth and death. Stuff we tend to forget about in our alienated world, where these things take place shut away in white boxes.

And Me, I get your point (and thanks for the compliment). But this mightn't have bothered you if in the performance you had been witness to a struggle to write, the birthing of a consciousness (just as the mare is delivering a foal elsewhere) rather than the writing being delivered just as if, well, she just wrote it down. Birth is a messy, difficult and painful business, and there wasn't much sense of that.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: In speaking about the ancient and sacred qualities of language, I don't mean that it's historical or "primitive". If they were, this play would be merely a curiosity; but these qualities go to the root of what we think being human is, what consciousness is (which is why contemporary neurologists tend to quote a lot of poetry) and so on. Being unaware of or desensitised to this stuff makes us vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations. I'm probably putting this very badly. If I had but world enough and time, I'd tell you what I meant, but it would need several thousand words. Just wanted to note that.

Anonymous said...

oh man, please can you read all the scripts that are produced so I can get some understanding of what is being aimed at? Just about everything you are saying regarding the text makes absolute sense when I piece together what I think I got from the production but didn't...I like the thing about childbirth and writing...very interesting and I do enjoy that idea a great deal.

These comments make me think 'whoa, 1500's? but what about the abandoned factory in spotswood set?' Is Knives in Hens really set in the 1500's? Man, then that design is way off the mark, because I think I would have preferred something absolutely closer to the truth...did someone mention placing a production on top of a play that didn't want that production.

The set itself was excellent, just wrong for this play.

A confusing piece for sure...looks like we like to be blown away by a play and feel such disappointment when it misses.

Thank you for your writings on this one Alison. I do appreciate it. Has actually made the entire experience worth having.

Tom C said...

Having not read the original text, perhaps I did not understand the failings of this production.

However, I found the performances to be engaging, interesting and filled with a kind of naive menace that I think is true to so many fairytales. The beautiful presences of each of the actors had me there with them all the way through.

There was something jarring at first about the obviously industrial set, particularly when talking about such organic things (animals, nature, human nature etc) but it grew on me after the first 10 minutes, and after a while I was mesmerised by it. There were times that the lights caught the actors in such a way, that they were reflected in the water in a perfect mirror image. The fact that it was so disjointed from the setting they were describing, filled me with a sense of space as the audience member to imagine what it is they were describing. It also raised interesting questions for me about reality, how we define it, put a word to it- which is particularly something that the Young Woman grapples with throughout the play.

I thought that the actors had considerable command over the obviously difficult/idiosyncratic text given by Harrower. The words they used painted such strong pictures in my mind. In particular, I felt that Box's performance was very intriguing. There was such a strong evidence of an inner world, a struggle that I could not particularly understand fully- and for that reason, I wanted to know more...

Richard Pettifer said...

I agree that this was quite an agressive conceptual approach, but having read the comments I'm keen to have a go at pointing out its potential goodies.

If Harrower's text (not read it) is an examination of (contemporary?) language through the lens of a 1500s village location, it makes sense to me that this already-present anachronism might be exploited through a post-industrial wasteland (echoes of T.S Eliot?). The emergence of the written word brought important changes to conceptions of identity and knowledge but also to history and the way that we concieve of time.

For me the (admittedly huge) decision to relocate it to a sort of post-apocolyptic setting (perhaps after the end of time? the future?) brought attention to language and its relationship with Time, how we define our existance in linear terminology (a timeline) or by vernacular or the words used to define a landscape or the body. There is an immediacy to the text (almost no reference to time? Almost a dremscape) that belies its mixture of Celtic and contemporary influence (I loved the callous swearing and the rupture that this created amongst the gothic-speak - it seemed so out of place, yet oddly within that space it felt more at home than other parts).

For a text that has a strong thread of time, it's an interesting decision that dislocates language and its context. Perhaps the world had died and been reborn again, the characters replaying a future not yet happened but already past, remembering the future. Or something... talking in circles...

Perhaps it was the circles in the set that triggered this for me? I liked where it sat, the accents worked and I think were probably the result of an organic process rather than directorial tyranny.

I must say that the rhythms mostly did not work for me, and if I'm on the mark here and time was conceptually important to the world created, rhythm should have been a primary consideration as it refers to time within the theatrical space. But I enjoyed it, (particularly the use of shadow in the lighting design), and I think that a 'safer' conceptual realisation would not have flexed this theme with the same energy.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, 4Coffins and Tom C. (And sorry for the late reply to this interesting thread, from which somehow I've been distracted...)

I'm really glad you both enjoyed the show. There's a lot to enjoy in it, after all. And as both BD and I said at the beginning of this conversation, there was room for the production to grow and deepen in the run.

It's not so much the concept itself that bothered me. I'm partial to post-industrial fables myself - McCarthy's The Road, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Tarkovsky's Stalker(one of my favourite films - you can read my thoughts here) and so on. It's a rich field for contemporary imagining. As you know, I don't have a problem with dislocation or anachronism in a production. And certainly this play has been done in intriguingly various ways.

I just thought that it could have been so much more powerful, had the play been allowed its lucidity. In this instance, you were forced to read it through two metaphors (the playwright's and the director's). It's a bit like going to an optometrist: they can click over two lenses and suddenly your sight can get much clearer, or the opposite. In this case, the poetic understanding of language that was in the text was deeply muddied. I had no conviction that the production showed any profound understanding of the text, beyond a surface layer of its being about self-becoming. (Geordie is perhaps unfortunate in my watching, in that the play is directly about things I've been thinking about for about 30 years.) Knives in Hens shouldn't strike you first in the intellect, but in the guts and heart. And that just didn't happen for me.

The Perf said...

I seemed to have had the opposite experience of this play in terms of pace. I found the production painfully slow, particularly in the transitions, and if the text had been of even slightly lower quality I would have lost interest completely. Luckily, Harrower's words, which were knew to me, carried me through, as did what I thought was a fantastic performance from Kate Box. I'm surprised that other people seem more enamoured with the men, who I found stilted.

It was nice to see something in Melbourne though, the Beckett is a beautiful theatre.

- Simon