Review - Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse
South African director Yaël Farber has become known for her raw and intense productions of plays about epic personal battles, from Mies Julie (a blistering South African version of Strindberg's Miss Julie) to The Crucible (at the Old Vic). Earlier this summer her reputation lost some of its lustre with a critically-lambasted production of Salome on the National's largest Olivier. But even the best artists are allowed the chance to fail sometimes, and now she returns to the intimacy and immediacy of a studio theatre where she is able to control the mood with a vice-like directorial grip.
In a perfect match of director and play, she now stages David Harrower's 1975 play Knives in Hens -- a hauntingly strange and simple story of a ploughman (both of grain and his wife, as we see all too graphically) and their co-dependence on the services of the local miller to ground the grain.
As the play explores the shifting parameters of control between the characters, we also observe the wife's awakening intellectual curiosity with the help of the miller; it's a story of earthy desire, but also about education, beautifully told through Harrower's poetic text.
Farber's electifyingly acted production has Judith Roddy as the wife and Christian Cooke as her husband, exuding animal passion with each other; but it is Matt Ryan's educated miller that finally sets her free but precipitates another tragedy. The atmospherically charged staging is much aided by the earthy environment created by designer Soutra Gilmour, dominated by the giant wheel of the mill, Tim Lutkin's stunning lighting and Isobel Waller-Bridge's score.