Why Yael Farber’s latest play is as powerful as ever

Yael Farber directs Knives in Hens at the Donmar Warehouse

Looking back through award-winning theatre director Yael Farber’s body of work, it is soon clear she is fascinated by the binary between the powerful and those they render powerless–a theme that emerged from growing up in Apartheid-era Johannesburg. Initially trained as an actor, Farber turned to writing and directing, and shot to notoriety in 2012 with her stark adaptations of Strindberg and Aeschylus, which addressed the South African experience, and later with Nirbhaya, a testimonial piece that confronted the gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a bus in New Delhi.

Her latest project, David Harrower’s 1996 play Knives in Hens, might be set in a simple pre-industrial farming community but, tackling ideas of sex, religion and persecution, it is no less powerful than any other of Farber’s other projects. As the Donmar Theatre stages her play, Farber explains to V.F. why, in the age of Trump, and the wake of Charlottesville, Knives in Hens is still searingly contemporary.

I sat down in the corner of my local café in Montreal on a crisp spring morning to read Knives in Hens – muttering the text beneath my breath to fathom Harrower’s beautifully strange, invented dialect. A first pass on a script is often far from a flight of the imagination for me. More often, it is initially to focus simply on the destination and how the writer gets us there. A sense of the play’s mystery may infuse the experience the next time I come to read it.

Yet every now and then, I have bent over a first page for the very first time, and it is as though the car has engaged auto-drive or a non-intrusive GPS. The power of the words eclipses the plod of comprehension. As I turned Harrower’s pages that morning, three indelible and haunting portraits rose: a ploughman, his wife and a miller. Archetypes – spare and essentialist – yet so detailed in their thoughts as to have me believe my ancestors had quietly slipped into that Montreal café to whisper over the table to one another, as I sat among them. The plain and profound poetry of Harrower’s dialogue was like forgotten secrets unfolding around me. I felt myself receding backwards into the dark soil of agricultural collectivism, yet the text was, with equal force, grabbing my ankles and holding me firmly on the harsh concrete of the present.

Months since that first encounter with Knives in Hens, as we rehearsed this remarkable play, America erupted in violence in Charlottesville. In the hours that followed, the president failed to condemn the hatred that caused the ugly events, where a young woman died and several were critically injured by an attack on those gathered to protest an ‘Alt-Right’ Nazi gathering. Despite the horror, Donald Trump could only muster a begrudging condemnation of violence on “many sides”, as though residing over an argument between two equally irrational children. To distance himself from the violence would be to disown the hateful rhetoric he peddled to his advantage during his campaign for the presidency.

Trump intuitively understands and exploits (as Harrower puts it) “the power of other’s tongues”. He used it to gain the electoral vote in his country and the highest seat of office. And America is no exception to the times. Brexit, the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, and the growing divide around the world between reactionary and liberal politics robs us of the illusion that we have ever moved beyond the frightened village that Harrower’s magnificent and seemingly simple Knives in Hens so powerfully evokes.

In this remarkable tale, a Ploughman and his Wife live faithfully by the codes of their community. The idea of ‘God’ is severely policed, and despising the local Miller is a collective custom that binds the village. Hatred towards the Miller is, in Harrower’s world, shown to be as base as Trump’s rhetoric. The need of a punishing God is as essential as bread. The violence enacted as plain and necessary as a shovel. And the erotic undertow of their lives as hungry and complex as our own.

As Trump continues to divide his party and country by brandishing hatred and suspicion of others, Harrower’s Knives in Hens proves more than ever to be an incandescent allegory for these dark times.

Knives in Hens (August 17 – October 7); The Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX; @DonmarWarehouse

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