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Theatre Review: Knives in Hens ***

Joy Watters reviews a production with strong performances and atmospheric design but flags in pacing.

Playwright David Harrower's work has been staged round the world and critically lauded since its 1995 Edinburgh opening. New artistic director Lu Kemp shows her artistic mettle by choosing it to launch 2018 at Perth.

It is a strange work variously described as dream play, love triangle and odd little fable—the latter Harrower’s words. As the lights go up an otherworldly, almost futuristic, landscape meets the eye, but this is set in the ancient past, deeply rooted in the preindustrial earth.

A section of a sphere illuminated from above suggests the isolation and icy coldness of living off the land (wonderfully atmospheric design from Jamie Vartan and Simon Wilkinson) faced by three inhabitants of the settlement. Lowest in the pecking order is a field hand, a woman who does not merit a name. Known only as Young Woman (Jessica Hardwick), she is in thrall to her ploughman husband Pony William (Rhys Rusbatch). All are subservient to the miller Gilbert Horn (Michael Moreland), loathing the fact that he sustains them by grinding their grain.

Hardwick is outstanding in the role as she injects the action with passion and purpose on her journey to empowerment. The Young Woman discovers how language and words can liberate her, taking her into a new world of emotions. She sees new horizons as she watches the miller reading and writing, wanting that freedom for herself.

Michael Moreland assuredly handles his changing relationship with the Young Woman from domineering village elder to lover and accomplice.

The pace of the production does sometimes flag, rendering some passages slow and opaque when it is all important to the central theme that the connection between actor and audience is gradually strengthened and sustained.

Runs at Perth Theatre until February 17th.

Tags: theatre

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