Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Knives In Hens (Malthouse - Melbourne)

Written by David Harrower
Directed by Geordie Brookman

Before this play, I had only heard brief allusions to David Harrower. I knew that successful productions of his Blackbird had been programmed by both the STC and MTC in recent years, and I had heard his named thrown about as the leader of a new movement of Scottish playwrights who eschew naturalism with poetic language. With these fragments of knowledge in hand, I was surprised at the opening scene of Geordie Brookman’s Knives In Hens. There was no poetry in the language whatsoever. Robert Menzies’ Pony William almost coughed out his words, while Kate Box’s Young Woman, was too lacking in knowledge of language to be able to treat it with care. Instead it seemed a decision had been made to ignore the poetic possibilities of the text and focus on physical presence, particularly in William’s attempted control of the Young Woman, and the industrial frames of the set’s impact upon the actors.

The set presented some nice opportunities, and I particularly liked the water at the front-right of the stage. I’m quite a fan of stage elements that can’t be faked. Everyone knows when an actor drinks a glass of wine on stage it’s probably iced tea or an equivalent, but with a large pool of water, you know their socks are getting wet whether they like it or not. I also enjoyed the sound as they walked through the water, in fact it’s probably the only sound I have any real memory of. I also liked the off-stage space of the stables created through Anna Cordingley’s ominous drainpipe. Unfortunately this dominating design robbed the play of a lot of its intimacy, as a well as requiring a lot of time between scenes as the actors moved about its various stage areas, which included an upstairs section for the Miller’s home.

Which brings me to my main reservation about the play, the pedestrian direction. I felt as if each scene had been directed without much care for those preceding or following it. There was very little build between scenes, with each instead seemingly treated as a self-completing entity. By paying too much attention to the ebb and flow of each moment, the overall experience was stilted. The audience was always given time to relax during the many transitions whilst the actors climbed ladders and battled with grates and doors making it very hard for the penultimate moments of the play to have any real impact. I never felt any moments of great dramatic tension, and they’re definitely there in the script.

In the end it was the text and Kate Box that got me home. Harrower’s deceptively simply story sent my brain off on many tangents about the importance of female education in a society (there is research to suggest that the only way forward with AIDS in Africa is to educate the women), and the freedom that language gives us to define our identity and experiences of the world. It reminded me of the angels in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings Of Desire who only learnt to speak when the humans they had been watching since creation gained knowledge of language. I also found Box’s portrayal of the Young Woman, in constant struggle with her own ignorance, engaging in what otherwise felt a long and stagnant show.

- Simon


The Perf said...

Knives in Hens is a beautiful text. It grapples with language and the role of language. Poetry. Knowledge. Pre-industrial Gods. Lust and desire.

It is strange then to see pictures of a set that look like a screenshot of Fallout 3, or some terrible b grade zombie flick. The abandoned warehouse where the bad guy lives.

I think, had i seen it, i would be far more incensed than you appear to be Simon. And i'd like to hear Nathan's conceptual Knives In Hens on this post. I bet it'd get more favourable reviews.


Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said...

I was a lot more incensed. I can largely put this down to the fact that I was familiar with and a big fan of the text before seeing this production. I don't think I was going in with any particular idea of what I wanted to see, but I was certainly looking forward to the way the language was treated; Harrower's words are beautiful and need to be seen as such.
Unfortunately, right from the first scene, the language was stomped all over. Yelled. Grunted and squashed into some sort of course image of a countryside where everyone yells a whole lot. I can see that perhaps this came from a connection to the rural nature of the text, but the whole point about this text is that the rural simplicity of the language is counterpointed by its poetic delicacy. Menzies was disappointing (especially being one of the main reasons I was optimistic about this show) and unlike you, Simon, I found Kate Box annoying. I felt she was playing stupid rather than uneducated, which for me in this play is a huge problem.
The design was solid enough, and if not for the tedious transitions the separate spaces might have made for some nice images. I do agree that the water was fantastic in its inability to be ignored, though possibly making it unrealistically blue was not necessary.
And yes, ultimately for me the thing that exacerbated every problem I was having was the slow (or complete lack of) build. I appreciate that this comes from an attempt to excavate every single moment for all its emotional value, but on a larger scale I just don't think this works. At least not for this production, and I felt it was a problem in Brookman's Baghdad Wedding as well. But also I think it comes down to the director simply staging the text on set, something that I have seen a lot more than I would like to this year.
After an exciting and lengthy conversation with my friend Nikki, this is how I've decided I would want to stage Knives in Hens. It largely comes from my own opinion of the text as well as my desire for a performance that is not simply a naturalistic-based staging.
One of the best elements of this production was the water - it's constant presence and perfectly real sound. Great, but instead of water, let's have ink. Lot's of thick, black as night ink. All three of the performers are situated in a small, clear perspex (or glass) prism, two meters tall and with enough room for them all to stand, sit and lie comfortably. The prism is completely boxed off, lit from all around, with perhaps the audience seated in the Round encircling it. The bottom of the prism is filled with maybe six inches of our black, black ink. There are microphones hidden on the edges of the prism, to catch not only the performers' voices but also the constant sound of the ink sloshing around their feet. The performers are all clothed in body-focusing costume made from thick papery fabric, the kind that as the performance goes on will slowly absorb the ink, and let it bleed all over the shape of the body. The performance itself takes on a dance quality; as the performers move around the prism they interact on a sensuously physical level, allowing their bodies to flow through and around each other as they use the language to explore the bodily presence of all three within the prism. The language is similarly flowing, given a delicacy and sensuality that matches the movements and the bodies. All the connection with education and landscape within the text is transposed to education of the landscape of the body.

Et voila. Simple but effective, I think, and it encapsulates what I think the important elements of the text are in a way that is simply another staging of a play.

- Nathan.

Nathan said...

edit: that is *not* simply another staging of a play. Sorry.

Dave said...

Beautiful concept Nathan, I'd love to see it. Expensive, but beautiful. Bring on grant apps.

Sorry to sound like Cate Madill, but I believe that the flaw in the performance was not so much the focus on each individual scene, but rather the lack of any real emotional gravitas or variance whatsoever across the text. Particular in the post-coital scene between the miller and the woman, some subtlety was required, some difference in the way that these people interacted with each other. The physicality was limited to shoulders touching, which could have been gorgeous had the actors incorporated even the slightest vestige of shared sensuality. AND THEY WERE STILL YELLING! AFTER SEX! Particularly I wanted to slap the miller at this stage, but Kate Box's voice growing hoarser and more whiny over the last half an hour reminded me of two things - Claire's endless screaming in Spectacular, and a woman at the train station I'd heard swearing at her husband. Needless to say, neither of these things got me thinking about the need for women's education or the struggle against rural ignorance, which - had they come out from under the thick sheet of vocal assault - might have kept my attention.