The thirst for language courses through much great drama from Shakespeare to Brian Friel, and it is the subject of David Harrower’s arresting, if sometimes oblique, first play. Imported from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theater to the Bush, “Knives in Hens” emerges in the Scottish-mysticism mode beloved by Harrower contemporaries like Rona Munro, but it shares with Friel an attention to silence , as its characters give way before the God who — in their eyes — names all.
The play is set among rural Scottish laborers in an unspecified previous time when superstition reigned alongside prejudice disguised as religion. The Young Woman (Pauline Knowles) — the one person significantly unnamed — is married to Pony William (Lewis Howden), the village ploughman, but falls for the miller, Gilbert (Michael Nardone), whom she has been told to despise.
When Gilbert idly remarks to the Woman about her husband’s fling with a local girl, she transfers her fury from the miller to her spouse, preparing for vengeance with a furious cleansing of her palms that recalls Lady Macbeth.
Harrower keeps pared to the bone the sort of triangular scenario that Eugene O’Neill ornately embellished in “Desire Under the Elms.” The characters are (often self-mockingly) defined by Homeric epithets — “brokenhearted wife,” “hated miller” — while the Young Woman’s need for words and names to match her experience is what takes hold.
By play’s end, head held high, she is hoisting aloft the miller’s pen. (It’s possible to read the play as a feminist parable of empowerment.) Her self-assertion, though, comes at a price as Gilbert opts to move on to a new town where they “won’t call me ‘miller.'” He is, it seems, as imprisoned by language as she is liberated by it.
The writing sets off numerous echoes, among them the fenland dramas of Caryl Churchill and Nick Ward, which relate similarly encoded erotic rituals in backwaters of England, not Scotland. Like those writers, Harrower makes few concessions to a playgoer not willing to do some work, and he has the perfect venue at the Bush to match his authorial rigor to that of a rapt (and packed) house.
Under Philip Howard’s astute direction, all three actors play mixtures of archetypes and individuals without lapsing into pretension, and only Martyn Bennett’s overinsistent music — played live by the composer — pushes the play toward a status it cannot support.
The title, incidentally, comes from one of Harrower’s best moments — a lengthy recitation to the miller from the wife’s own writings about “push(ing) names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen.” Finishing the passage, she turns to the miller in amazement: “This was me.” In writing, she feels, she is moving ever closer to God’s embrace of names, just as it is Harrower’s play about names that has set him on the road to becoming one.