Audiences should make the most of Perth Theatre’s new production of David Harrower’s play, Knives in Hens, when it opens this week in the city’s newly refurbished building. While Harrower’s now more than twenty-year-old debut work about a woman finding her voice remains as startling as ever, it might be a while before you see anything new by him onstage.
Harrower says that, once he’s finished his current theatre commitments, he’s unlikely to write a stage play again. As he continues to concentrate on film and TV following the low-key success of the big-screen adaptation of his play Blackbird, retitled Una, he reckons that will be that.
“I kind of fell out of love with theatre,” says Harrower, “It came out of a couple of years of writer’s block, which was terrifying. It was a real slap. There are still vestiges of it, but I’m working on something now, and after that I don’t see me writing another original stage play ever. I’m slightly obsessed by the fact that I’m not writing for theatre anymore, but I don’t feel it in my water. I’ve got new things to learn, new battles to win.”
Harrower may sound both combative and curious about his current sense of liberation, but it doesn’t take away from the lyricism of his first play, as well as a body of work which may now have concluded with his most recent play, Ciara, in 2013.
When Knives in Hens appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1995 before embarking on a tour of the Highlands, it announced the arrival of an astonishing new voice that was quieter and more elliptical than the so-called in-yer-face wave of writers bursting out of London that were from Harrower’s generation. Set in a harsh pre-industrial rural landscape, the play focuses on a peasant woman’s emancipation through the words she learns from a miller who offers her a knowledge she can’t get from her patriarchal ploughman husband.
Written in a sparse, near mono-syllabic demotic that recalls the minimalism of Edward Bond or German writer Franz Xaver Kroetz, Knives in Hens has been produced all over the world since its first Edinburgh production and the speedy revival that followed. As has been well documented, Harrower wrote the play after wrestling for a couple of years with a big political epic on Scottish land ownership to no avail. Originally written for radio, Knives in Hens was sent to the Traverse, where then artistic director Philip Howard picked it up immediately for a production that featured a live score played by the late Martyn Bennett.
The last time Knives in Hens was seen in Scotland was in 2011, when the National Theatre of Scotland teamed up with Belgian maverick Lies Pauwels of the Victoria company for an eye-poppingly irreverent reinvention of Harrower’s play. A stark and flint-eyed text was turned upside down by a production that featured a pair of kilt-clad dancers flashing their underwear to the Eurovision-winning bubble-gum strains of Lulu’s Boom Bag-A-Bang. With a mini carousel in the centre of the stage, while the production was appealingly riotous, you get the impression that Harrower didn’t take to it overly much.
“I’m not sure the play withstood it to be honest,” he says. “To do something like that you need something really robust, and when I saw it I felt really protective about what I’d written.”
The most recent sighting of Knives in Hens in the UK was a production last year at the Donmar in London. While then as now Harrower took a back seat from being involved with the production in any direct way, director Yael Farber threw a lot of questions at him just as Perth Theatre artistic director Lu Kemp undoubtedly has this time out.
“I had to pitch back into the play at look at my younger self,” says Harrower. “I don’t think about the play that often other than the odd glance, but when it went on at the Donmar it was like it was being rediscovered. No-one tells you what to do with your memories of an old play, and you immediately start asking yourself all these questions. Of course, you see all the flaws, but why didn’t I write it in Scots? Should it be more political? Is it too philosophical? Just all this stuff to lacerate and flagellate myself about.”
Looking at Harrower’s still slim Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) credits, it comes as a surprise to learn that, as well as Una, a low-budget film adaptation of Knives in Hens has been made. Released in 2016 under the name Culling Hens, while Harrower is credited for American directors Christopher Jarvis and Alex Loeb’s production ‘inspired by Knives in Hens’, he knew nothing about the film until it was made.
“It was stolen, basically,” he says. “I’ve had nothing to do with it. It’s on IMDB under my name, but I’ve not earned a bean from it.”
On the back of Una, Harrower has several TV dramas on the go, and at least one other film.
“Writing the screenplay for Una brought me into that world,” he says of his adaptation of his 2005 play, originally seen at Edinburgh International Festival. “The film didn’t get a huge release, but it was well received. It’s a difficult film. It’s not necessarily a crowd-pleaser, but it opened things up for me a bit. The TV thing really grabbed me a few years back as well. It’s a long process, but I find it really exciting. It’s like learning a new trade.”
The film Harrower is currently working on is set in Scotland. As well as the new trade he’s learning, some of the battles he mentions are about squaring up to how anything resembling a sustainable film and TV industry does or doesn’t work in Scotland.
“TV drama is going through something of a golden age just now,” he says, “but it doesn’t seem to be happening in Scotland. I really want to make films in Scotland, but it feels like there’s been nothing for years. Other cultures and other regions have thriving film industries, but in Scotland no-one seems to be able to make it happen. Even though the TV thing I’m writing just now is set in Scotland, all the meetings for it are in London. It seems a bit odd having to get on a train every week to talk about a project set in Scotland. I’m not a lone voice on this, and there are far more eloquent ones than me speaking about it.”
Harrower recognises too that theatre has changed since Knives in Hens first appeared.
“There’s been a real shift in the landscape,” he says. “I think the generation of writers I’m from always had that idea of the sole-authored play, and that you write a body of work that reflects the world, but I’m not sure that happens anymore, and that’s left me high and dry. There’s a real sense of a sea-change in terms of what theatre is.”
Whatever happens next in terms of Harrower’s writing, the understated profundity of Knives in Hens remains undiminished.
“I think it has a kind of philosophical wonderment,” he ruminates when asked about the play’s power. “There’s something in there that’s a cradle of something. There’s something in there about the beginning of language, and how people begin to tell stories, and I wonder if there’s something fascinating and obscure in that. As a play, it’s a good story that takes you by surprise and wrong-foots you. There’s a kind of magic to it. That’s nothing to do with me, but is about what happens when people begin to learn to describe the world around them. It’s kind of ungraspable, really.”
Knives in Hens, Perth Theatre, February 1-17.
The Herald, January 31st 2018