Knives In Hens | Malthouse Theatre and STCSALeft - Robert Menzies and Kate Box. Photo - Jeff Busby

A puddle is a puddle. The moon is like cheese. This is how William, the village ploughman, describes the pre-industrial world in which he lives. Everything has a name or can be described by being like something that has a different name. Otherwise it is simply a gift from God. Fields and trees, leaves and white clouds, rabbits and birds. These are a few of the things that the Young Woman, William’s wife sees; these are few of the things that she can name. In Knives in Hens, David Harrower, the creator of Blackbird, the MTC hit from last year, has written a work that is part allegory, part pastoral poetry. It is full of metaphors and ambiguity, a work that for its audience, resonates in such a way that experience is a must and articulation near impossible. Within the play itself it is the experiencing of life that prompts the Young Woman to realise that for description, these limited words and names will not always suffice.

In this particular production directed by Geordie Brookman, presented by Malthouse Theatre and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, the design team have created an environment completely at odds with the actions of the characters and the idyllic landscape they describe. The fields, and the horses in the stable, to which William (Robert Menzies) tends to for hours on end, and the leaves and sky that the Woman (Kate Box) watches, are nowhere to be seen. Anna Cordingley (set and costume), Andrew Howard (sound) and Paul Jackson (lighting) have replaced the play’s Scottish farming origins with a timeless, harsh and unforgiving landscape, one that mirrors the oppression and isolation of its characters.

William and the Woman live like sewer rats amidst the darkness, shadows and damp. They traverse concrete walls and metal platforms, wade through dirty water and sleep at the base of a huge concrete sewer pipe. The sounds of their movements across the man-made terrain is paired with an eerie score, and in the dim light figures appear in ominous shadows before they have arrived. There are doors and ladders but like the pipe that becomes a death trap, none of them seem to lead anywhere. There seems to be no way out. One of the ladders however leads to the mill, and the house of the Miller (Dan Spielman). Here there is candlelight, a table and a chair and a couple of shelves with books. There is also paper and ink and with these the Woman finds that she does not always need to “push names into things that are there” rather she can write what she sees importantly, also what she feels.

True to the notion that runs throughout this play, in many instances it is not the words in this text that tell the story. Rather it is the rhythm of the dialogue, and the sound of the performers’ voices. In several instances, mundane acts such as running and nightmares take on an erotic quality when the sounds of panting and distressed groans punctuate the surrounding silence for lengthy and sometimes awkward periods of time. The love scene between the Woman and the Miller for instance occurs by way of the sound of her heavy breathing long before the performers have undressed. Finally the breathing stops and the stage goes black. It is just one of the many moments in this work where it is left up to the audience to visualise what really happened.

Amidst all of this stimulation of the mind and senses there are three brilliant performances. So good are they that the characters become just another part of the world that consumes them. Menzies is well cast as the older, ailing husband, who treats his wife like the land – something to be cultivated, something that now and then needs to be rested so he can work “new pastures.” As William he has just enough of the disturbing presence to go with the insinuation that his relationships in the stables may go beyond those of a man who has taken on a shepherd-like role. Spielman, as Miller is unrecognisable with his bushy beard and long hair but the gentleness of his performance is well suited to his character’s love of writing and reading, and aspirations to lead a life beyond the mill and even the village. Box has perhaps the most difficult of the roles in that she must display a gradual progression of her rather naïve and sometimes crass character, a subtle awakening of the mind, senses and the ability to articulate these. From a physical point of view Box is considerably taller than both of her male counterparts. It gives her a commanding physical presence, sometimes at odds with the way in which William speaks of her, but one that is fitting considering the strength that is required to survive the harshness of her physical surroundings.

Harrower has created a work in which the introduction to the power of language has been the Woman’s chance of freedom; from the intellectual and physical oppression of her husband, and from the bounds she finds herself in without adequate means of expression. In this production however his characters live in a world that is engulfed in darkness, and it seems the idyllic world they describe will forever be just a dream.


Malthouse Theatre presents
A Malthouse Theatre and State Theatre Company of South Australia Production
Knives In Hens
By David Harrower

Director Geordie Brookman

Venue: Beckett Theatre, The CUB Malthouse
Opening night: Wednesday 5 August at 7.30pm
Dates: 31 July – 22 August 2009
Times: Tuesdays 7.00pm, Wednesday – Saturdays 7.30pm, Sundays 5.00pm
Matinees: Saturday 15 August at 2.00pm and Thursday 20 August at 1pm
Tickets: $15 - $49 + booking fees of $1-$2.50/ticket
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 9685 5111