Knives in Hens review: this Donmar Warehouse production is grimy retelling of a play with lofty ideas

 
Melissa York
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Judith Roddy as Young Woman and Christian Cooke as Pony William
Knives in Hens
4.0

Knives in Hens is one of those plays where it’s better to go in knowing nothing than knowing too much.

In fact, it’s the relentless pursuit of knowledge that preoccupies Young Woman, the play’s protagonist, in this medieval fable that feels like it’s been around since the time of Chaucer. It’s much newer than that – it was first performed in 1995 – but there’s an ethereal quality to David Harrower’s prose that lends it a timeless quality.

Set somewhere in rural England – Yorkshire accents abound – Young Woman is married to the village plowman, an uber-masculine beardy brute who’s known by the nickname Pony William for being a bit too into horse-rearing.

A treatise she writes, recounting how her search for words to describe God’s creation brings her closer to God himself, is mesmerising in its simplistic poetry.

When he sends his downtrodden wife off to the miller to turn his grain into flour, she meets an intimidating intellect who sets about teaching her how to articulate her thoughts.

The results are nothing short of enchanting; her partial sentences to describe the theatre of nature – “the wind blows, the tree sways, the clouds roll” – are like yogi mantras. A treatise she writes, recounting how her search for words to describe God’s creation brings her closer to God himself, is mesmerising in its simplistic poetry.

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Yael Farber directs, the architect of a recently panned Salome at the National Theatre. Knives recreates all the style and atmosphere of that production, but with none of the pretension.

Through coats of grime and dustclouds of flour, Knives in Hens is a pastoral powerhouse. Though its feet are firmly planted in the earth, its ideas are reaching for the heavens.

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