Season opener Knives in Hens is quintessential Coal Mine fare because it is challenging, substantive, provocative and dark.
Coal Mine Theatre/Knives in Hens, written by David Harrower, directed by Leora Morris, Coal Mine Storefront, Sept. 22 to Oct. 13. Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com.
Coal Mine Theatre sits in an enviable position. Now entering its sixth season, Coal Mine is regarded in the top tier of Toronto indie companies. Its devoted subscribers include the high-end i.e. intellectual theatre goer, who schleps out to the Leslieville Danforth, attracted by a playbill that is challenging, substantive, provocative and dark. The season opener Knives in Hens is quintessential Coal Mine fare because it is challenging, substantive, provocative and dark.
Knives in Hens (1995) was Scottish playwright David Harrower’s first big hit, and is regarded as a modern classic that has been translated into over a dozen languages. Torontonians would be most familiar with Harrower’s Blackbird (2005), where an older woman confronts the man who sexually abused her when she was an adolescent. The atmospheric Knives in Hens is very different from Blackbird’s searing realism. Set in a rural village where life is brutish and hard, the story line follows a young woman’s empowerment through words. Early in the play she says that all she has to do to discover God’s world is “push names into what is there, the same as when I push my knife into a hen”. This flowering of reason and language, however, is intertwined with sex, lust and murder. One’s perception of the world is a many-layered thing.
Young Woman (Diana Bentley) lives in a village steeped in ignorance and superstition. She is married to Pony William (Jim Mezon), an earthy, coarse, rough-hewn man and the village ploughman. A major focus for Young Woman is the couple’s active, and seemingly enjoyable, sexual relationship. What kick-starts Young Woman’s learning curve is when William says she is like a field, which she doesn’t understand. Even when he describes the field in erotic imagery such as raw, soft earth waiting to be ploughed, she still doesn’t comprehend the metaphor. This is the point where Young Woman begins to experiment with language to enlarge her worldview. At first her monologues are simple, such as “birds fly”, “the sun shines”, “a tree stands”. Later she creates more complex concepts such as, “the wind blows the clouds away from the sun”.
At the same time as Young Woman is expanding her horizons through a parade of ideas and the power of language, she encounters Gilbert Horn, the more refined local miller (Jonathon Young) who can read and write, and who keeps a diary. The villagers are afraid of Gilbert because he supposedly killed his wife and child, but Young Woman is drawn to him, and so begins the eternal triangle of wife, husband and lover with all its complications. Harrower is working on many levels in the script — intellectual, philosophical, physical, rational, irrational, religious, mythological. His terse, stark economy of words belies the many themes that percolate beneath the surface.
The acting is very strong. Bentley does a first-rate job at depicting Young Woman’s growing excitement at understanding her world, yet she also is able to telegraph the raging hormones within. We actually see her grow in intelligence, as hard as that is to believe. Young’s smooth Gilbert is a perfect foil for bristly William. He is calm and reasoned, but also sly as he is quick to pick up that Young Woman is vulnerable, and he plays her intellectual/sexual curiosity beautifully.
For those who follow my reviews, you know that the great Jim Mezon can do no wrong, and once again he is superb as William. Mezon beautifully conveys the canny native intelligence that makes William the king of his world. He is also forceful, proud, dogmatic, and surprisingly poetic. Talented director Leora Morris has created a production that is stark, clean and austere, but that speaks volumes to the subtexts.
I’m always impressed by Coal Mine’s sets, particularly what the company manages to do on a miniscule budget. Designer Kaitlin Hickey has created a platform covered in earth, augmented only by a couple of wooden stools. On one sidewall is a large cutout circle that represents the mill stone. She has also layered in slats of wood against the back wall to represent William’s barn. Her design is simple, yet evocative.
Hickey is also responsible for the dramatic lighting that is almost like another character in the play. What a talent she is. No composer is credited, so I am assuming that sound designer Christopher Ross-Ewart is responsible for the harsh music that conjures up the sawing chords of a peasant fiddle. His integration of the noise of the millrace and the mill wheel, not to mention the whinny of horses, is also excellent. Michelle Tracey’s perfect peasant costumes are absolutely graphic in conveying the wearer’s hard work and hard living. Together, Hickey, Ross-Ewart and Tracey have created atmosphere galore that is at the heart of Harrower’s rude world.
It is a recurring assumption that you will leave a Coal Mine play with a puzzle to work out, and Knives in Hens is no exception. Coal Mine is a theatre company for deep thinkers.