Perth Theatre continues its reopening season with a staging of David Harrower’s modern classic, Knives in Hens.
Set in a pre-industrial isolated Scottish rural community, the play explores the love triangle between a nameless young woman, her ploughman husband and the hated village miller. The coming of age tale includes the young woman’s emerging realisation of the expressive power of language and its ability to transport her beyond her bleak existence.
In advance of the opening of Knives in Hens on 1 February, The Reviews Hub’s Fraser MacDonald spoke to director Lu Kemp and actors Jessica Hardwick, Michael Moreland and Rhys Rusbatch about the show.
Knives in Hens is a globally successful play, with a number of reincarnations since its debut in 1995. How do you make a start on such an iconic piece?
LK: Well, one of the reasons I was so keen to give this play to audiences here is that I think it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of Scottish writing in the last 25 years. It’s only been seen in Scotland in three different productions and, to my mind, more audiences should know the work and it really deserves a revival at this moment in time. But also, it has been done in productions all over the world but so many of these have departed quite radically from the text and what I was seeking to do here was to dive into the text and create a production of the piece which is as close to the words and story as it possibly can be.
In terms, then, of those who will be presenting this on stage, how has the process been?
RR: First of all, like any rehearsal process, you sit around the table and go over the text and you bring to the table what your own thoughts are. I guess it’s here that you start to pluck out themes that you want to put across. Lu, our director, has an idea of what she wants from the production, so we put all that into the mix and we take it from there. From then, it’s all the boring stuff like learning your lines, so that you can come in to rehearse without the physical restriction of your script.
MM: Here we’ve gone right back to the text and doing it as truthfully as you can. You don’t worry about past productions – we’re doing our own production, so we just investigate different possibilities within that and piece it together until it works.
RR: The key, really, is not to think of it when you’re doing it as an “iconic piece”; you’re jst exploring the world and engaging with the characters in the moments that happen and things grow from that. You have some degree of control, because you have a vision, but there are a lot of ideas that come from rehearsals which you wouldn’t be able to plan for.
JH: …and because the text is so strong – it’s such a solid piece that David (Harrower) has given us. All the work is in it, really, and we’re just picking it apart to make it as clear for an audience and for ourselves to communicate that story. The writing, and the themes, are so strong so that holds it.
LK: The text is actually a bit like an onion; the more you unpeel it, the more you find. I feel, with this piece, that we could re-play it 30 times and you’d constantly find more and the audience could see it for every night of the run and come away with something different to the night before. For me, having read it well over 100 times, I still discover layers within it that I hadn’t seen before.
The show itself is set in pre-industrial Scotland, will people who see the piece today feel it’s still relevant?
LK: It’s partly in the way that it’s written; it’s a bit like a prism in that you turn it in one direction and it catches one kind of light and you turn it in another and it catches a different kind of light. It speaks so clearly to our world in multiple ways and different audiences will take it in different ways. What I’ve been thinking about is how we tell stories and how much power stories hold in our society at the moment. If you hold the narrative, you hold the power and it takes a sort of radical and revolutionary person to think for themselves and to break that story-telling, which is essentially what happens in the play.
Knives in Hens is part of the billing for the reopening of Perth Theatre since its refurbishment. How does the piece slot into the broader programme and have there been any barriers coming into the new theatre with the piece?
LK: The reason I programmed the piece is that it’s almost a modern classic. It’s got a really lovely combination of being something that some consider as new writing but also a text that has been thoroughly mined, so it’s a bit like giving the audience a gift with this one. For people who don’t know it, it’s a great chance for them to discover it, and for people who do know it we’re welcoming them to experience it in this moment of time. In terms of the larger programme, I’m looking to do work which has familiarity to audiences but also to find work that we know is really strong. It’s our job, as a theatre, to hold the balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar; to create new experiences for people and to open up possible narratives to live within.
Can the actors in the production identify with any parts of the character that they portray?
MM: Especially with a text like this, you have to find the character from yourself otherwise there’s not a lot of truth in it. So bits will come from you and there are contradictions as well.
RR: You sometimes have to rise to these differences as well. In my own character, the ploughman, obviously I came to the play with things I could contribute from myself but he just doesn’t function that way. You’ve got to find the character by going through the text and running the dialogue with each other.
LK: It’s also important to say that the characters don’t exist in isolaton; they wouldn’t be characters without another there and they only become characters by pushing against somebody else. Character is action and we have this idea that somebody is a particular character outside of the world that they sit in but that’s just not true. ‘I am my character because of the situations that I deal with’ is likely a better description.
The show is often described as dark, bleak and hard hitting. How does that fit within theatre in Scotland today, where many productions can be brash, showy and glitzy?
LK: I think, firstly, the dark description that accompanies this piece is simply not true; this is a play that holds a lot of light and a lot of hope in it – but you do have to move through the darkness to see the light in it. Where you talk about the kind of showy theatre, the piece is very rich with imagery so it’s not a bleak vision of the world that you’re watching. It has darkness within it but it’s much more open than that. I also don’t necessarily agree with the description of Scottish theatre, because I think what’s so strong about contemporary Scottish theatre is that we have such a wide range of theatre producers here in Scotland, producing such a wide range of theatre, and I think that the choice available to audiences is quite incredible for the size of the country. I think, especially, we have some of the strongest children’s theatre in the world here in Scotland and it’s really important that we continue to invest in that work. Children’s theatre opens a whole range of rich theatrical style that then impacts on the theatre that we call ‘adult’.
Finally, when the curtain comes down on Knives in Hens, what does the future hold for you all?
LK: I’m diving almost directly into Richard III and Michael is playing across both shows – playing quite a different character in the next show.
RR: I’ll be going back to London to look after my three month old daughter.
JH: I’ll be going back to London too, actually, and then going ou on tour with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart with the National Theatre of Scotland later in the year.
LK: …and that’s actually worth saying – that Jess was playing the lead in Prudencia Hart because it was really warmly received by Perth audiences.
Knives in Hens runs from 1 – 17 February 2018 at Perth Theatre.
For more information visit: www.horsecross.co.uk/perth-theatre