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Review: The earthy Knives In Hens, Donmar Warehouse

Cw-17962Christian Cooke's buttocks are exposed as he rolls around on a muddy stage with Judith Roddy in an act of love making that is almost primal and animalistic. The audience has barely settled into the opening moments of Knives in Hens and already director Yael Farber has set out her stall for what type of production this is going to be: earthy.

David Harrower's play about ploughman William (Cooke), his wife (Roddy) and their relationship with the local miller (Matt Ryan) isn't a romping yarn of rural life and relationships this is a poetic and gritty exploration of self-awakening and discovery.

When William describes his wife as 'like a field' it has a seismic influence on their relationship. At first the statement jars, she has no place for the figurative but her curiosity and consciousness is pricked, the notion that 'it is what it is', is no longer satisfying. When Miller, a demon figure in the eyes of the community, puts a pen in her hand it seals the fate of all three.

They live in a pre-industrial, rural community. The stage may be muddy with the huge grey mill stone at the back, the work may be laborious and hard but it is incongruous to the way William talks about the land, its fertility and how his wife describes the sky and landscape. It mixes the romantic and poetic with something unforgiving, brutal and practical.

There is irony at play. William is older, more experienced in the ways of the world and yet his adherence to tradition, to his place in society limits him. Comfort in what is familiar initially boxes in his wife but once that comfort is challenged and the lid lifted her husband becomes the barrier to her experiencing the world.

Christian Cooke's William is dark and muscular, brusque and brooding he reminded me at times of a later year's Heathcliff. Judith Roddy's young woman is equally earthy, sometimes feral, sometimes gentle but with an ever growing spark of consciousness about the world around her.

It's an atmospheric piece, high on metaphor and ideas rather than complex plot, not immediately rewarding but definitely a piece that bears thinking about. It's 90 minutes without and interval and I'm giving it four stars. See it at the Donmar Warehouse until 7 October.