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Theatre review: Knives in Hens

There's nothing quite like a Yael Farber production, says John Nathan

Donmar

    Judith Roddy (Young Woman) in Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Yael Farber
    Judith Roddy (Young Woman) in Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Yael Farber Photo: Marc Brenner

    Every theatre should have a Yael Farber production in its season. Not because her productions are always brilliant but because there really is nothing like them.

    Farber is one of the very few directors who can be identified just by looking at a play rather than the programme. Sweat, earth, sex and violence are usually present. Danger always is.

    Following a brave but ponderous Salome at the National, David Harrower’s 1995 play about life on the land in medieval northern England now gets the Farber treatment. The play is set in dark, dank fields and the humble homes of a ploughman, Pony (Christian Cooke) and a miller, Gilbert (Matt Ryan). It is the job of Pony’s young wife (Judith Roddy) to take the fruit of their spoils — sacks of wheat — to be ground at Gilbert’s mill.

    It’s a simple, hard life. The language is only a cut above the guttural. Love between Pony and his wife is expressed through the simplest of sentences, or with a sexual clinch. Fear is expressed with aggression.

    But the charm of Gilbert, and also his ownership of books and a pen suggest to the woman the possibility of growth— culturally, sexually and emotionally. It’s like a primordial love story that morphs into a thriller. And although the action in Farber’s production is slow and steady, there is a tension in the air that designer Soutra Gilmour saturates with a haze so thick you could lean against it. A huge millstone forms the backdrop, though its heaviness is never quite as convincing as the weight of the performances.

    Judith Roddy is terrific as the young woman, treading a line of ferocity and fear. There’s nothing else quite like it.

     

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