JOYCE MCMILLAN on KNIVES IN HENS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, ROMEO AND JULIET at Traquair House, Innerleithen, and DAPHNIS AND CHLOE at Oran Mor, Glasgow for Scotsman Arts, 9.6.11
Knives In Hens 4 stars ****
Romeo And Juliet 3 stars ***
Daphnis And Chloe 3 stars ***
OH, THAT National Theatre of Scotland. No sooner have they earned themselves a few gold stars from Scotland’s traditional theatregoers by staging a sweeping mainstage hit like David Greig’s Dunsinane, than they feel the urge to blow another set of comfortable assumptions out of the water, this time about David Harrower’s acclaimed 1995 debut play, Knives In Hens.
First seen at the Traverse during that year’s Fringe, Knives In Hens is a famously restrained and sparely-written play for three actors, set in a timeless and nameless rural commmunity. A young ploughman’s wife visits the local mill with five bags of grain for grinding, and develops an erotic obsession with the miller, a loner who reads and writes, and is the object of superstitious gossip. By the end of the play – just 90 minutes on – her life has changed completely, as she emerges from the chrysalis of her closed rural world into a new universe of description, imagination, possibility, and, sometimes, of ruthless destruction of the past; and given the universality of the theme, it’s not surprising that this beautiful play has been staged in more than 25 countries, over the last 16 years.
In this new touring production for the National Theatre of Scotland, though, the Belgian director Lies Pauwels has not so much staged the play, as exploded it to the four corners of the stage, and reassembled it in a new, raunchy and disturbing form. The play opens with the ploughman’s wife and her poutingly sexed-up alter ego – electrifyingly played by Susan Vidler and Vicki Manderson – rushing to the front of the stage, lifting up their punk-style kilt skirts, and repeatedly showing us their knickers, while Lulu’s Boom-Bang-A-Bang roars out on the sound system, and Duncan Anderson as the kilted ploughman keeps trying to scoop them up and return them to backstage decency. In a few seconds, in other words, something is said about the landscape of once-peasant Scotland and Europe now drenched in pseudo-erotic pop culture; and about the control of women, and the possibility of their sexual liberation.
It’s said, though, in a such a grotesque and eye-popping style that most of the audience start to giggle; and so the show goes on, through an increasingly disturbing yet persuasive riot of circus imagery, strange performance tropes (the miller, icon of literacy, can hardly speak for a series of strange verbal spasms and tics), heavily-miked self-conscious dialogue, and brilliantly intercut music, ranging from the Bach-inspired soprano musings of European culture at its most beautiful and meditative, to the rowdy female torch-songs of Edith Piaf. Owen Whitelaw’s performance as the spasmodic miller is a theatrical tour-de-force, but as pleasant to watch and hear as chalk squeaking on a blackboard; and I was quite distressed, throughout, by the show’s conflation of real female sexual liberation on one hand, and trashy porn imagery on the other. Vicki Manderson spends most of the show representing either a pouting sexually-aware girl-child, or a heavily pregnant young mare in the ploughman’s stable; there’s no liberation, and a lot of voyeurism, in that.
In the end, though, there’s no dismissing the powerful riot of imagery Pauwels assembles; or Susan Vidler’s magnificent performance as the wife, thoughtful, disturbing, and deeply sexual. This show will outrage many people; don’t go there if you don’t want to be irritated, baffled, amused, shaken and stirred. Once again, though, the NTS have defied expectations, to create a production that reinvents Harrower’s play as the kind of classic text on which directors can unleash their imaginations. And if Pauwel’s production leaves its women awkwardly poised between real liberation and a new age of pornographic debasement and control – then perhaps that’s exactly where we are, in the Europe of 2011.
After such a welter of erotic complication, though, it’s good to turn to a pair of summer shows which celebrate young love at its simplest and sweetest. At Traquair House, in Peeblesshire, director Kath Mansfield assembles a cast of more than 50 – professional actors, community actors, and a stage army of lively schoolchildren – to stage a memorable promenade version of Romeo And Juliet, in courtyards and gardens all around the house. The management of the promenade is a shade inept, taking the audience on long forced marches around the grounds and up and down the walled garden in a way that could easily have been avoided by better planning, and that adds a good 20 minutes to what is already a long evening show. Everything else about the production, though, is richly enjoyable, from Matthew Burgess’s outstanding performance as Romeo, to the brilliant use of the child actors to represent the warring neds and policemen of Verona; and of course, the glorious prettiness of the setting, with light glowing from a high window of Scotland’s oldest inhabited house during the balcony scene, and flowers and fruit trees tumbling around Juliet’s bower, in one of the loveliest orchards in the country.
As for Hattie Naylor’s ultra-short version of the legend of Daphnis And Chloe, the first of this year’s lunchtime Classic Cuts at Oran Mor – well, this is just a laugh, reduced almost to nonsense by the effort of playing almost 20 assorted gods, toffs, parents, lovers and poets with a cast of just three. In Marilyn Imrie’s production, though, it’s a laugh with a lot of class, and a lively grasp of the absurdity the story of two doting lovers who have no idea how to express their feelings, until the god of love intervenes. Mark McDonnell, Kirstin McLean and Paul James Corrigan do heroic work, as at least seven characters each; and the audience emerges blinking into the sunshine, delighted by an infinitely jolly piece of pastoral summer fun.
Knives In Hens at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, then on tour to Inverness, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St. Andrews, until 16 July. Romeo And Juliet at Traquair until tomorrow, 10 June. Daphnis And Chloe at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.