We toddled off to the Rondo again last night for a second visit after the recent success of our “Poetry can what…?” evening. I had noticed a production of a play called “Knives in Hens“¹ by David Harrower and knew nothing about either but since I like to take a bit of a risk with theatre and since the Rondo is only ten minutes walk away I thought it would be a good opportunity to support the theatre and see something a little different. This is what the blurb for the play said:
“Best known for his play Blackbird, this is David Harrower’s astonishing début. Set in a God-fearing, pre-industrial rural community, a young woman comes to terms with old grudges and factions, an unexpected betrayal and a growing awareness of her place in the world.
I don’t think that either of us is afraid to make imaginative leaps or to mentally work with a creative enterprise to understand what it is trying to say but on leaving the theatre we both agreed that our primary response was along the lines of: “Did that really work?” Clearly there was a structure discernible in the presumed setting, the three characters and the essential dramatic conflict of what could be described as a love-triangle, but these elements were clearly there as a framework through which to tell a deeper story about being human. To give you an idea of the mise en scène let me quote some independent sources:
It is at this point that, in the aftermath of celebrations involving much beer and spirits, on the occasion of the villagers having successfully installed a new grinding stone for the miller, that the poor ploughman goes to relieve himself and is, it seems, murdered by his wife, the woman. For the life of me I couldn’t discern her motive for doing this though it seems to be her that is conducting an adulterous affair rather than the ploughman but things are so opaque by now that I may just have completely misunderstood events. The miller then leaves for distant parts in case he is implicated by the villagers in the murder and we are left to wonder what will become of the woman. The Scottish National Theatre again:
“As the young woman journeys from ignorance to knowledge, her liberation is found through language and her need to name things to understand their place and hers in the world. Knives in Hens is a remarkable play about the transformative power of knowledge and an emerging consciousness as the world moves from rural to the urban and industrial.”
I have a real problem with this type of thinking, speaking from an anthropological and philosophical perspective. I am just not a fan of this type of mythopoeia because it makes claims without foundation to some form of deeper insight into the human condition and let’s be clear, there is actually nothing in the play about an arriving urban or industrial society. Of such a thing we hear nothing and I take that to be mere supposition by the writer above. To misquote Jonathan Safran Foer, “Nothing is Illuminated”. The real human condition is all around us and throughout history. Cultures are imbued with the reality of human understanding and of how humans have come to terms with their real material conditions. My irritation is of the same sort as that enunciated in my recent Stars Wars post the regarding a lack of material basis for the action. One cannot take a recognizably medieval, peasant culture and attempt to infuse it with this kind of nonsense. The pre-industrial world embodied very sophisticated cultures even at the village level with much folk and Christian “cultural knowledge” to inform people about the world together with complex and detailed social organisation that enabled people to know very clearly their identities and place in the world. There is not some abstract thing called “knowledge” divorced from concrete social conditions towards which one can posit a necessary movement.
It is similar to those irritating origin states that have never existed such as Hobbes’ “state of nature” or Rousseau’s “noble savage” or Freud’s ancient Oedipal drama. We never make a transition from ignorance to knowledge because we are, as Heidegger maintains “thrown into the world”, a world that is “always already there”. We absorb our knowledge as culture from the moment of our birth to that of our death so it is not possible to dramatize something that doesn’t actually exist in the world which is why this is a play which once again does not succeed because it is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.
I don’t enjoy being critical but I must say what I feel. However, it is clear that the rest of the world does not agree with me. Since it was first staged at the Traverse Theatre in 1995, “Knives in Hens” has been staged in 25 countries around the world and is widely acknowledged as a modern Scottish classic. There’s no accounting for taste and I should add that it is clear there have been many and varied interpretations, by widely different companies and directors, with what would seem to be differing abilities, leading me regretfully to say that probably the production by “Playing Up” is not quite up there with that by the likes of the Scottish National Theatre and which may well have influenced my response.
¹ None of the images in this post are of the production that we saw at the Rondo.