by Lynn on September 29, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David Harrower

Directed by Leora Morris

Set and lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Costumes by Michelle Tracey

Sound by Christopher Ross-Ewart

Cast: Diana Bentley

Jim Mezon

Jonathan Young

A tremendous production of a play bristling with invention, yearning, language, power, sensuality, passion and longing.

The Story.  Knives in Hens is a startling title but the play was written about startling times. David Harrower wrote this in 1995. He spent two years trying to write a play about possession of land and real estate in Scotland and it resulted in nothing. He was discouraged so he thought he would pop off a radio play and Knives in Hens was the result.

We are in some rural place (Scotland?) in the 15th Century. A couple are talking to each other. The character known only as Young Woman (Diana Bentley) is matter-of-fact, direct and takes things at face value. She’s talking to her husband, an older man named Pony William (Jim Mezon). He owns a field, ploughs it and grows wheat. The work is everything to him.  He likens Young Woman to a field, lush and full of possibilities. She thinks he means she is a field.  Subtext is not her forte. He only refers to her as ‘Young Woman.’

Pony William on the other hand is almost poetic in his descriptions of the land, Young Woman, the world they live in and the village that rules everything they do. One day Pony William sends Young Woman to the Miller (Jonathan Young) with five sacks of grain to mill. Pony William can’t go himself because he has to tend a mare who is about to give birth and he needs to be there to calm the animal and guide her.

Pony William primes Young Woman to hate the Miller because it’s thought by the village that he killed his wife and baby. Everybody in the village hates the Miller and distrusts him because he doesn’t work as they do. His milling stone does the grinding and he keeps part of the grain as payment. But they contend with him because they need him to grind their grain.

Young Woman’s contempt turns to something else when she meets the Miller and he talks to her as if she has a brain and challenges her.

The Production.  Thanks to her design team, director Leora Morris has captured the surrounding gloom and primitive nature of that world. Set designer Kaitlin Hickey has created a dirt floor as the playing area with a stool on one side and another simple stool on the upstage side of the space. Hickey also designed the lights and they are muted.

Director Leora Morris is so gifted.  She has a clear vision and vivid imagination and creates scenes that are stark, surprising and arresting. When Young Woman does meet the Miller she oozes contempt. But he meets her stare and life changes. He talks to her and challenges her assumptions about him. He has respect for her and her limited world, but he busts that limited world open when he gives her his pen and dares her to write her name. This is a woman who until recently never left her house really. And now her whole world is being blown open by a man who talks calmly to her, respects her brain and loans her his pen to write her name.  It’s a powerful revelation.

I think the reason Harrower set his play in the 15th century is because it gives the piece a sense of isolation in time that therefore resonates when we see how contemporary it is. The idea of a love triangle is as old as time, as is the power of ‘the group’ in this case ‘the village’. The juxtaposition of that time and the implications of the three relationships give the piece a timelessness. It also gives David Harrower a chance to create his own language for the play.

Pony William has a matter of fact way of talking but it’s poetic and vivid in its own way. Young Woman’s language by contrast is simple, almost primitive. But when she becomes aware of her world and engaged in it and that she has an imagination and it’s let loose by the Miller, then her world expands. The Miller’s language is more contemporary in form.

He is able to communicate clearly with Young Woman and eventually her with him. And of course there is an attraction there. Harrower explores the world of “the village” that has so much power over the people there.

Pony Williams is devoted to his horses and forbids Young Woman to come in the barn without announcing herself first. He doesn’t want her to scare the horses. Or is it something else that’s going on behind those barn doors? It’s thought he was called “Pony William” because of his ability to work well with young horses. Harrower makes us wonder if it might be something else, more sinister. He explores passion, lust, jealousy, loneliness and secrecy and he uses this time long ago, but still with resonance to today.

The cast is terrific to a person. As Pony William, Jim Mezon is breathless with the endless work of the character. When he talks to Young Woman it’s as if he just got off the field from a day of ploughing. The words are carefully picked. You can feel and smell the sweat on his skin and clothes. Huge kudos to Michelle Tracey for those wonderful, worn, stained, lived in clothes. Pony William is almost overpowering when talking to Young Woman but there is a sexuality too that bristles.  He says he chose her and watched her grow until she was ready to be his wife; that is both creepy and compelling in that world.

Diana Bentley plays Young Woman, at first afraid of venturing out of her comfort zone of her house, not thinking just working and doing. She thinks in black and white. Her inflexion is almost flat and expressionless—never boring, but so telling in the lack of scope of her world.   But then the character blossoms when given the chance, and then something else enters her character that makes one wary.

Jonathan Young plays Gilbert Horn, but he is only known as the Miller. Young makes the Miller unafraid to stare down Pony William and his insinuations. Most important the Miller and Young Woman have a powerful connection that is unavoidable.

Comment.  Once again, the edgy, scrappy Coal Mine Theatre presents a bristling play given a dandy production.

Coal Mine Theatre Presents:

Opened: Sept. 25, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

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1 Callie September 29, 2019 at 11:25 am

You’re such a terrible writer, Lynn. Your sentences are like lead. You repeat yourself: it’s like you’re so confident you don’t proofread. You shouldn’t be critiquing things because you genuinely cannot write. Please stop. Please please stop.