Falling for language’s power — and danger — smartly captured in Knives in Hens

Knives in Hens

3.5 stars

Written by David Harrower. Directed by Leora Morris. Until Oct. 13 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue. CoalMineTheatre.com.

David Harrower is now considered one of Scotland’s premiere playwrights, but the play that established his career wasn’t initially written for the stage, but for the radio. In concept it’s an easy fit; the play, “Knives in Hens,” is not only told through text but revolves around the meaning of words, how we use them, and what else can be unleashed in ourselves when the power of language is harnessed. What’s more, the audio format would put Harrower’s specificity in his writing under the figurative spotlight, uncluttered by the trappings of a set, lighting, or a physical theatre.

“I’m not a field. How’m I a field? What’s a field? Flat. Wet. Black with rain. I’m no field,” it begins, spoken by the protagonist known only as Young Woman. In that first line we get the efficiency of Harrower’s language in this world and with these people — Young Woman and her plowman husband Pony William don’t have time for full sentences but punchy statements and cut-off phrases. And for Young Woman, but not her husband, language is purely literal which, at least at first, is another power imbalance in his favour — he can describe her, name her, in ways she doesn’t understand, and it fascinates her.

But when the BBC ghosted Harrower’s radio play, he thankfully turned back to the stage. Its 1995 premiere put him on the map (he went on to write 2005’s “Blackbird”) and a theatrical production means that the play’s obsession with metaphor can be expressed through visual as well as verbal means. Opening its 2019/2020 season, Coal Mine Theatre presents the Toronto premiere of “Knives in Hens” with a production directed by Leora Morris that marries the text’s stark, grim poetry with rural gothic images in Kaitlin Hickey’s set and lighting design, so as Young Woman grows in her understanding of language and her own mind, her entire world cracks to reveal secrets she didn’t see before, and capabilities she didn’t know she had.

There are elements in “Knives in Hens” that subtly reflect the in-yer-face trend in British theatre in the 1990s: a surreal world, cruel attitudes, and a violent end. But this production offers an unusually hopeful twist on the genre. Young Woman (Coal Mine Theatre co-founder Diana Bentley) and Pony William’s (Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon) life on their wheat farm is rough and simple, and 15th-century rural village gossip and religion keeps them relatively isolated among the fields and horses that surround them. But the combination of the setting and Harrower’s text elevates it to a nearly mythological place.

Pony William has an extremely paternal relationship to his horses and bans Young Woman from entering the stables, and the village fears the local miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young of “Betroffenheit” fame) for his rumoured magic and murder of his wife and newborn child. Young Woman herself can stand and stare at a puddle, or lift her arms toward the sky searching for the right word for what a white cloud does (does it run like a rabbit?), and on Hickey’s set of dirt, Bentley strikes a supernatural figure.

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But Bentley’s performance roots Young Woman in a wide-eyed innocence and a fundamental eagerness to learn. She adores her husband, played by an infuriatingly patronizing Mezon, because of what he can provide her: a satisfying life, a partner, and access to a kind of real-world knowledge. Then she meets Horn, and is even more intrigued by his ideas, his books, and his pen. So even as her burgeoning sense of self reveals an unexpectedly dark side to Young Woman, and her body goes from being covered in dark dirt stains to white flour smears, Bentley maintains a playful and mischievous spirit. Young Woman’s independence doesn’t make her a better person, but Morris and Bentley don’t make her a villain either.

Harrower’s play holds up extremely well in 2019, in terms of its representation of a woman celebrating her own agency in a patriarchal world in all its positive and negative results, and his text is still hypnotic to listen to. What’s less impressive are his insinuations about the superiority of mental agility over physical labour, turning Horn into Young Woman’s inspiration and Pony William into her enemy when a more complicated depiction of the two men would deepen the story. But even so, the Coal Mine’s Knives in Hens is a dreamlike production that’s hard to pin down, and escapes simple categorization — it’s whatever metaphor you want to give it.

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Carly Maga

Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga

TORONTO STAR

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