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David Harrower - Knives in Hens, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Belgian Connection

“Let's get this over with,” says David Harrower at the start of our
conversation about Knives in Hens, his still remarkable 1995 debut
play, which receives a major revival from the National Theatre of
Scotland next month. You can and can't see why Harrower is so reluctant
to talk about one of the most brilliantly strange of plays to have
comer out of anywhere in recent times. It's sixteen years since
Harrower's starkly brutal tale of one woman's emancipation in a
pre-industrial era first captivated audiences in the Traverse Theatre's
smaller space in Edinburgh, and a lot longer, one suspects, since
Harrower first started writing it.

What was part thriller, part love triangle, and told in a minimalist,
mono-syllabic demotic, slowly but surely announced Harrower's arrival
as a major writer on an international scale. Knives in Hens
also went some way to define an ongoing exploration of intimacy that
has manifested itself in various forms through Harrower's later plays,
including his controversial 2005 Edinburgh International Festival
contribution, Blackbird, and his most recent work, seen at Glasgow's
Tron Theatre two weeks ago, A Slow Air. Yet, despite these and some
half a dozen other plays and numerous translations and adaptations of
classic works, it is still Knives in Hens that remains in view. In
Germany alone, Harrower estimates there has been somewhere between
forty and fifty productions. Not that he pays much attention these
days.

“I don't see it anymore,” Harrower says. There's still productions that
go on around the world, but I kind of felt I'd moved on. The last one I
saw here was the TAG production (in 2005), but the last foreign one I
saw was about ten years ago.”

When Knives in Hens appeared, many of Harrower's peers in England at
least were exploring what went on to be dubbed in-yer-face theatre, a
confrontational and seemingly nihilistic ripping up of the rule book in
what appeared to be a post political age, but which has since proved to
be a howl of rage in search of something to believe in. Knives in Hens
came from somewhere else.

“I just wanted to see a different kind of drama on the Scottish stage,”
is how Harrower remembers it. “I'd read Scottish work I wanted to see,
but I knew I'd never have the voice to do that sort of work at the
time. I think my voice was always a quieter one. It was very common in
Scottish plays at the time to be more haranguing, and I kind of found
my voice from doing the play. The subject matter shaped the form and
found the rhythms through it.”

After only nine performance at the Traverse, Knives in Hens toured the
Highlands and Islands before being revived for the Traverse main stage
and a London transfer at the Bush. Out of this came commissions for the
Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre,
while back in Scotland only the Traverse took a chance on a second
Harrower play.

By that time, the wheels were in motion for a first German production
of Knives in Hens after a script was passed on to directing wunderkind
Thomas Ostermeier, who Harrower would go on to work with via a
translation of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's play The Girl on the Sofa.

“It was quite a production,” Harrower says of Ostermeier's take on
Knives in Hens, “and had ripples. It announced Ostermeier's name, and
introduced a different way for German theatre to go.”

Just why the play has proved so consistently popular in Europe, though,
Harrower can't say.

“I'm wanting to say something elemental about it, but I dunno. It's not
usually done as a Scotland-based play, but is set in the country where
it's being produced, so maybe there's something there to do with some
kind of emergence of an agricultural, agrarian state. But I don't know
if it's the story that hits the spot or if it's about cultural stuff.”

Given that language and the discovery of its written power is so
crucial to Knives in Hens as well as its ongoing presence in Europe,
the drafting in of Belgian director Lies Pauwels to oversee the NTS
should make for a fascinating culture clash. Coming from a
non-literary tradition of making theatre, Pauwels is a stalwart of the
much heralded Victoria company, working as an actor in devised pieces
including the equally acclaimed Bernadetje, as well as the original
Belgian production of Aalst, later produced in an English language
version by the NTS. Pauwels has also made her own work familiar to
audiences at Tramway via pieces such as White Star and Venizke.
Crucially, prior to the NTS introducing her to the play, Pauwels had
never seen a production of Knives in Hens. She is nevertheless
relishing the prospect of putting her stamp on the play.

“I like this play because in a way I recognise something of my own
work,” she says. “That unconscious level, the fact that there are so
many ways of understanding the text. We do not have a tradition of
written plays so we have less fear of doing something wrong towards a
text. We don't mind pushing a play in extreme directions.”

However much the play may be reinvented, and however reluctant Harrower
may be to rake up old ground, Knives in Hens remains a totem of his
development as a writer.

“It's still valuable to me,” he says. “It's not necessarily an easy
play to get into. You have to pay your way in, and it's not readily
accessible, but once you get in, it's worth it. For me, it just
signalled something, in as much as I realised I wasn't going to be a
dramatist who would dive straight in at the centre of things, but was
going to be darting round the sides and coming at things from different
angles. If you like it set an imprimatur on my creative process. God
knows what would've happened if it'd just disappeared, but as it turned
out it validated the form of writing I was trying to reach.”

Knives in Hens, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, June 3rd-12th, then tours
Inverness, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews
www.traverse.co.uk
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, May 26th 2011

ends

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