By David Harrower
Although acknowledged as his debut, Knives in Hens was not the first play David Harrower wrote,
“[he] had written a big, angry play about private land ownership in Scotland . I spent a couple of years researching and teaching myself how to write – and was met with an unholy silence. As an antidote, I thought I’d do something speedy for radio, thinking they’d reply quickly. That was Knives in Hens. I sent it to the BBC and heard nothing for seven months, then a polite rejection note. After that, I posted it to the Traverse. Philip Howard read it and said he wanted to put it on straight away. It was that sudden.”
Set roughly in the pre-industrial 15th century, the play unfolds in a small rural and god-fearing community where the rhythms of life are still bound inexorably to the seasons; ploughing, sowing, reaping and milling. A young woman is married to the ploughman before meeting the village miller, a man generally despised by others for taking their hard won grain in return for his skills and millstone. He is seen as a necessary parasite. However, he has skills that are new and powerful; he can read and write. Slowly the woman comes to accept the fact these abilities do not go against god and realises that she herself has thoughts and a voice that can be expressed. It is a story about our need to log and record our lives and our thoughts on paper. It is also a story of awakening that is told in the most realistic and yet poetical language.
“It’s not set in a specific area, but in my head, it was near Gorebridge, outside Edinburgh, in the 15th century: a dreich, suffocating place. I wanted to convey that feeling, so the language I used had to be sparse and limited. It was exciting realising I didn’t have to fasten myself to a rational writing style, that I could be imaginative. But I was unsure of my stripped-back language, and whether it was going to work – or whether audiences would be able to follow it.”
Knives in Hens went on to achieve success around the world, has played in over 30 countries and won the Theater Heute Best Foreign Play, Critics Award in 1998.
Note: Due to some strong language this play may be unsuitable for under 16s.
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