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.