Ever since it first appeared – at the Traverse Theatre, in the summer of 1995 – David Harrower’s Knives In Hens has been acclaimed as one of the greatest new Scottish plays of recent times. Translated into a dozen languages, and frequently revived, it is officially described by the National Library of Scotland as “one of the most produced Scottish plays of all time.” A brief but mighty archetypal drama, set in a village where life is governed by tradition, it concerns the triangular relationship that links a restless young ploughman’s wife – know only as “Young Woman” – both to her husband, Pony William, and to the much-hated local miller, a widower mistrusted for his habit of reading, and of writing down on paper the thoughts in his head.
Harrower’s theme is the almost aggressive impact of language – new words, words beyond the simple range normally used by the people of the village – on a traditional way of life threatened by change. And as the Young Woman becomes increasingly aware of her own fascination with the process of naming and description – a fascination she shares with the miller – the story builds to a climax which has resonated with audiences and readers across the world, capturing that shift from tradition to modernity that has been the story of almost all cultures, over the last 250 years.
First performed in 1995 by the late Pauline Knowles, Lewis Howden and Michael Nardone, in a fine premier production by Phillip Howard, Knives In Hens has since been revived by companies including the National Theatre of Scotland – which staged a famously controversial tartan-punk version in 2011 – and, in 2017, at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Early in 2018, though, Perth Theatre staged what was perhaps the play’s finest Scottish revival so far, a beautiful production by artistic director Lu Kemp. Staged on a powerful circular set by Jamie Vartan, like the inner core of the mill, and split by streams of golden grain magnificently lit by Simon Wilkinson, the production picked up multiple nominations at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland in 2018, and won the Best Female Performance Award for Jessica Hardwick’s portrayal of the Young Woman.
In this extract, Hardwick captures the infinitely complex moment when the young woman, visiting the miller, first begins to write down her thoughts. At first, she accuses the miller of making her do it; but then gradually realises that she is embarking on a journey towards knowledge and deeper insight that she associates with the idea of God.
Hardwick grew up in the Borders, and graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2013; since then, she has won huge acclaim for her theatre work, winning a best newcomer award as the fragile young prostitute Sonja in the Citizens’ Theatre’s Crime And Punishment (2013), and going on to play a stunning Roxane in Edwin Morgan’s Cyrano De Bergerac, and the astonishing heroine in David Greig’s 21st century Border ballad The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, on tour in Scotland and the United States. She has also built a substantial career as a radio actress, and runs her own photography business.
On stage, though, she is an extraordinary performer, who seems able to change her whole body shape and presence to evoke the radiant glamour of a Roxane, or the sturdy solidity of a hard-working farm girl; and here we can glimpse the extraordinary intensity of her engagement with every nuance of Harrower’s text, as the Young Woman experiences an intellectual and creative awakening that is as ruthless as it is unstoppable, and not without its own kind of violence.
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