Knives in Hens

Lorcan Cranitch and Catherine Walker. Photo: Pat Redmond

Lorcan Cranitch and Catherine Walker. Photo: Pat Redmond

Vincent Regan & Catherine Walker. Photo: Pat Redmond

Vincent Regan & Catherine Walker. Photo: Pat Redmond

Vincent Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Vincent Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Catherine Walker and Lorcan Cranitch. Photo: Pat Redmond

Catherine Walker and Lorcan Cranitch. Photo: Pat Redmond

There is so much talk of God in David Harrower’s 1993 play, it stirs up one’s internal catechism. The following sprang from the recesses of memory: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1.1)

Okay, so that verbatim delivery of biblical text required some googling, but the first bit, “The Word was God”, was embedded in the brain pre-search; happily, the rest of the sentiment fits the play as well. Young Woman (Catherine Walker) inhabits an Old Testament world, in which she, like Adam, names her surroundings in order that she secures a place in them. It’s a dangerous business, this self-constructing narration, and one that the powers-that-be in the Village would surely frown upon. Despite trying to turn her into a simile, Young Woman’s husband, Pony William (Vincent Regan) is not willing to allow her to become more than a vessel, prohibiting her from touching his horses, and yet forcing her to make contact with the abhorred miller, Gilbert Horn (Lorcan Cranitch).

It is through this secular contact that she takes all those words, through which she has been placing herself in the world, and brings them into the light of the written word, in order that her personal light shines in the darkness. And so it does, taking a violent act, and fleet of lies, to ensure that it does.

LORCAN-CRANITCH-IN-KNIVES-IN-HENS--Photo-by-PAT-REDMOND-1-(1).jpgYoung Woman and William live a hard, hand-to-mouth existence on the outskirts of a Village that is their moral centre. It allows them some kind of freedom, and it’s one that William takes advantage of in his own way, and one that Young Woman will do, in hers. He is gifted with horses, and in order that he keeps his trysting place – he is not faithful to his marriage – he prevents his young wife becoming known to his animals, instilling the fear of them, and of the place, in her. She is held to the boundaries of their land, circumscribed by her chores, and struggles with pushing those boundaries when her husband requires her to bring their grain to the miller to be ground to flour.

These boundaries are further expanded when he hands her a pen, allowing her to make a record of her awareness, and in allowing that, to imagine her world as something that she can contain, rather than simply narrate. In allowing for all this, in sneaks the darkness, the darkness of murder and dissembling.

Harrower’s text is incantatory, with short bursts of language, with the kind of short, sharp repetition that are like the responses to the mass. Continuing this metaphor, director Alan Gilsenan has set his stage in partial traverse, like the long nave of a cathedral. This helps to underscore the ritualistic and religious themes of the text. It doesn’t, however, make it at all easy for the audience to view the performances unhindered. Many subtleties of the performance were missed from having chosen the wrong seat, which was the result of vestigial muscle memory – who wants to sit in front in church?

Despite all the God carry-on, the play is very much of the earth, down in the dirt - as Young Woman often literally is - and of the carnal body. It is her journey that we follow, and it is a product of the play that we don’t really realise how far she has come until the last minute, until the lights go down. So much time is spent on creating Young Woman’s restrictive world that her transformation is given something of a short shrift, and the agreement between herself and the miller to send Pony William off to the choir invisible is not even demonstrated (unless it happened out of my sightline).

The performances are solid, with Regan mustering the most consistent and convincing Scottish accent. Staying faithful to play’s provenance is all well and good, but if there was ever a text that would translate seamlessly into “Irish”, it’s this one.

By throwing off the shackles of received wisdom, and in effect, freeing the god-in-her, that “life (that) was the light of men”, Young Woman commits an indecent act in order to live a decent life. There is no punishment, only freedom (with the added joy of the miller going off on his own) for the woman chosen to go forward without need of a man by her side. She’s created herself a New Testament reality, and it doesn’t matter so much that she has killed a man to get there, for won’t all be forgiven? An interesting moral conundrum for an unexpectedly moral play.

Susan Conley is a journalist and novelist.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Knives in Hens by David Harrower

9 - 28 November 2009

Produced by Landmark Productions
In Smock Alley, Dublin

Directed by Alan Gilsenan

Designer: Joe Vanêk

Lighting design: Sinéad Wallace

Musician: Eleanor Dawson

With Catherine Walker, Vincent Regan and Lorcan Cranitch