Anyone who saw the extraordinary, unrelenting ‘Salome’ at the National Theatre or many of her previous works will expect an intense and visceral theatrical experience from director Yael Farber. Though intimate where Salome was epic, the medieval tragedy, ‘Knives in Hens’ now running at the Donmar, is definitely cut from the same cloth. Prepare for sweat, dirt and powerful, physical performances.

David Harrower’s modern classic, first performed in Edinburgh 1995 is a three-handed tragedy set in medieval rural Britain, delivered in stark, poetic dialogue. Judith Roddy plays the young peasant woman, married to earth-bound Pony Williams (Christian Cooke), a ploughman who spends most nights in the stables with his mares. Unlike her husband, the woman is a poet at heart. She stands in the fields and searches for words to describe the wonders of the world. At the other side of the village lives the solitary Miller (Matt Ryan), feared by the peasants who believe he crushed his wife with the grinding stone which looms ominously over the stage. When the young woman takes her sacks of corn to be ground, the miller offers her the chance to write with his pen and ink. It’s only when her world with Pony Williams is shattered that she reaches out to grasp the pen and discover who she is and what she could become.

It’s a love triangle and an awakening but perhaps most evocative as a profound realisation of the power of the written word. Not only does writing offer the young woman a way out of her despair but it brings her into being. Watching her find language is like seeing Vgostsky’s theory that thought and language are interdependent come to life; the words enabling imagination rather than simply expressing it. But this is a tragedy and a there’s a truly nasty ending. Maybe the peasants were right about the dangers of the Miller and his spells?

Few directors explore female power and the transition from ignorance to enlightenment with such a physical hunger. The affect is raw but the text is honed like a poem and the production is immaculately choreographed – no sound or movement unconsidered. Within the constant thrum of Isobel Waller-Bridge’s industrial soundscape the light and shade of Harrower’s writing breaths freely. Very occasional the style feels artful, as if the millers corn is being thrown in the air because it makes a beautiful white arc rather than anything more meaningful but for the most part the characters are so intensely realised by the cast, they could do pretty much anything and we’d believe it.
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