Coal Mine Theatre opens its season with a viscerally thrilling production of playwright David Harrower’s rough and resonant fable Knives in Hens.
In an unnamed and pre-industrial rural community, we meet a Young Woman married to the village ploughman. She is devoted to him and his farm, though her restlessness is palpable. Fascinated by the world around her, she wants desperately to find the language to express her enthusiasm. As the story progresses, she is encouraged by the ostracized local miller to explore her feelings and voice her truth.
Before he appears on the scene, the miller is built up as a man to be feared. Rumours abound as to the fate of his late wife and, it is later revealed, the God-fearing though ignorant community mistrusts his worldly ambitions—suggested by his reading and writing. Jonathon Young plays him with a quiet, calm intensity that sets you almost immediately at ease.
Less comforting is Jim Mezon’s ploughman, though he is charming in his own gruff and haggard way. He means well enough and seems to care greatly for the well-being of the horses that he tends to privately in the stables. The life he leads and demands of his much younger wife lacks the emotional and intellectual possibilities she is beginning to crave. And his secretive activity in the stables may not be as innocent and nurturing as he wants her to believe.
Diana Bentley’s Young Woman is the quivering, attentive, searching core of the play. You’re never quite certain about her intentions and there is always something exhilarating, potentially dangerous in her knowing eyes.
The story is deeply rooted in parable and poetry, though everything feels earthy and authentic. Both Harrower’s text and Leora Morris’ direction are fixated on the textures of earth and body. The aesthetic of Kaitlin Hickey’s set makes these textures a tangible reality with her narrow stage carpeted with freshly turned dirt. Eerie light creeping through clapboard fills out the rest of the space.
Christopher Ross-Ewart sound design is also very striking. Horses in distant stables, the ominous rumble of a millstone—even in so small a space, these feel more like natural phenomena than well-orchestrated sound cues. And some very rousing and suspenseful music makes scene transitions decidedly cinematic.
Dream sequences, in any medium, are tricky. It is so easy for symbolism and stylization to veer into trippy yet empty abstraction, but the cool and haunting simplicity of these dreams scenes, with their suggestion of deep and veiled meanings, feel intimately tied to our Young Woman’s consciousness.
So much of the play is grounded in the reality of the back-breaking work required for survival in this community. It also transcends the vivid textures of this reality to suggest heady ideas about knowledge and self-actualization. The eerie possibilities of Knives in Hens may haunt you long after you’ve left the theatre.