Stage Door Review
Knives in Hens
Thursday, September 26, 2019
by David Harrower, directed by Leora Morris
Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto
September 25-October 13, 2019
Young Woman: “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.”
It’s about time that Knives in Hens, the 1995 play by Scottish playwright David Harrower received a professional production in Canada. The work is considered a masterpiece of British drama and has been performed in more than 30 countries so far. Toronto has seen only an unsatisfactory production of Harrower’s Blackbird (2007) in 2009. Knives in Hens is a play with much wider implications. Coal Mine Theatre gives the play written in a compact minimalist language an appropriately compact minimalist production. Though not all of the cast find a way to make Harrower’s text sound natural, the many layers of the script come through with force.
In Knives in Hens, Harrower has basically taken the age-old structure of the romantic triangle and infused it with new meaning. He sets the action in a pre-industrial age and two of the characters are peasant farmers – Pony William (Jim Mezon), an older man, and his young wife known only as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). In an interview Harrower has said that he imagined the action taking place in the 15th century, but the point is that the setting is in a rural backwater where peasants may never have seen a pen and where books are a novelty.
The unnamed location is rife with superstition and rumours that the young miller, Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), has killed his wife and child are rampant. What fuels these rumours is the notion that while farmers use heavy labour to produce the grain, the miller does “nothing” in grinding it to make flour. The mill does all the work. The farmers thus resent the miller for taking a share of their flour as payment for, in their view, doing nothing to earn it.
When the play opens William is in the process of trying to teach the Young Woman what a metaphor is. He has said she is “like” a field and she, insulted by the connection, does not she how she has anything do do with what a field is. We see that part of the reason for Harrower’s chosen setting is that he can examine the very roots of language and thought. In the Young Woman’s mind, everything has a name and even though she can’t understand how one think can be like another things, she does have the desire to know more names of things than she already does. In fact she notices actions and changes in objects around her and longs to know what names these actions and changes have.
As in a fairy tale, William has forbidden one particular place on the farm to his wife. This place is the barn where the stables are. William says that only he can be alone with the horses because the Young Woman’s presence will disturb them. In the unquestioningly obedient mode in which we first meet her, the Young Woman stays away from the barn. but one night when William is not in bed, she goes down to the barn and hears female laughter inside.
Meanwhile, one day the Young Woman is given the task of taking the grain to the miller to be ground. She is filled with the horror stories her husband has told about him and is surprised to discover that rather than being a raging monster, the miller is quite a gentle, kind young man. What particularly fascinates the Young Woman is that the miller likes to record what he has done and thought that day with pen and paper. She calls the pen an “evil stick” and thinks that putting thoughts from one’s head on paper must be against God’s law. Nevertheless, he convinces her to write her name on paper and we see that she cherishes the paper.
Thus, as in a fable Harrower has changed the love-triangle into a triangle not about romantic love but about knowledge. William may love the Young Woman but he fills her with superstition and wants to keep her ignorant. Gilbert, on the other hand, wants to encourage her desire to know more. Gilbert knows more from village gossip what goes on the William’s barn than does William’s wife. Pony William’s nickname may refer to his propensity for bestiality, something completely outside the purview of the Young Woman, but when she hears the laughter of a woman in the barn with William, she does understand that and is abashed when Gilbert even knows who the woman likely is.
Even though Harrower writes in a tightly restricted poetic language, we see clearly how the Young Woman grows away from her brutish husband and toward the young miller who encourages her to discover as much as possible about the world. Harrower does not make his fable morally clear-cut. William would have sex with him be the highpoint of his wife’s day, but the miller may also be using the encouragement of knowledge as a means of seducing the Young Woman. Whether she gives in to this seduction is her choice.
How the actors cope with Harrower’s language proves the main stumbling block in the production. In a typical exchange Harrower cuts language back to the bare bones:
Young Woman: I see.
Gilbert: Knowing nothing.
Young Woman: I see. Know what I see.
Gilbert: Track. Mud. Horse. Here. There. Sky...
Young Woman: See more’n that.
The difficulty with this extremely terse language is to make it sound natural. The impression we should have is of people so isolated from each other and so oppressed by their work and their ignorance that they use only the minimum amount of words to communicate. Any attempt to make the dialogue sound like a real conversation rather than two people grunting out words to each other sounds false. Director Leora Morris is guilty of ignoring the point of Harrower’s severe language. She even tries to make the exchanges between the Young Wife and Gilbert sound like banter when, in fact, neither is witty or free enough to to use language in a frivolous manner.
Of the three, Jim Mezon is best at making Harrower’s language sound like the natural expression of a coarse peasant. Mezon does not play William as loathsome but rather the reverse. Mezon shows us that William thinks himself smart enough to keep his wife in line but not smart enough to recognize her longing or to see when she begins to doubt him. William foolishly thinks that his repeated avowals of love for his wife will be enough to prevent her mind from inquiring too deeply into his other activities.
Diana Bentley is probably the least successful in making the text sound natural. It may seem like an odd criticism but she speaks the Young Woman’s lines with too much intelligence and confidence right from the start, whereas the point of the play is that she grows in both qualities because of her questioning nature and her interactions with the miller. Strangely, this is one play where clear, precise diction is not an advantage.
Jonathon Young falls somewhere between Mezon and Bentley in his mastery of Harrower’s style. In some ways he has the most difficult task since his character has grown up with one mode of speech but is in the process of moving past it to a more expressive mode. As Gilbert, Young does give the impression of speaking like the Young Woman both because he once spoke in such as way himself and because he needs to imitate her manner to make her understand him.
Morris’s greatest successes, helped by Kaitlin Hickey’s lighting and set design, are in imagining the Young Woman’s eerie visions of Gilbert at night and especially in staging the climactic scene at the mill where the surprise will make you jump out of your seat.
The Coal Mine’s production leaves you with two feelings. Right from the start you feel this is a great work and you wonder how can it be that Canada has had to wait so long to see it. At the same time, every minute of the play as you see how effortlessly Harrower has linked his theme of language to the expansion of expression and of the imagination, you praise Coal Mine for staging this play and finally filling in a gap in our knowledge of recent drama.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Diana Bentley as Young Woman and Jim Mezon as Pony William; Diana Bentley as Young Woman; Jonathon Young as Gilbert. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets, visit www.coalminetheatre.com.