Knives in Hens

Tue 8th – Sat 12th May 2012


Ellen Smyth

at 09:06 on 11th May 2012



This second production in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Directors Cut, Knives in Hens, is a fast paced, unnerving tale of love, loss and learning. Put simply: the lives of three inhabitants of a rural village become tightly entangled. But don’t be misled - this is not merely a re-telling of a simple love triangle (if there is such a thing). At its heart, Knives in Hens is a quest for understanding and truth. And the characters take an intensely urgent road to self-discovery.

Wide-eyed, earnest and inquisitive – a young woman (Jennifer Greenwood) - is searching for answers. More specifically, she is searching for words. The play starts simply enough, with the idea that using a particular word to name an object can determine its importance. Following this same rule, the ability to define our emotions or thoughts supposedly enables us to rationalise who we are and how we feel.

There’s no doubting that Knives in Hens is a conceptually complex play. We see the young woman and her husband William (Simon Victor) at different junctions in their relationship as their power struggle unfolds. We are then introduced to the miller Gilbert (Isaac Stanmore) so as to explore his position as an outcast in the traditional farming village. Jennifer Greenwood and Isaac Stanmore shine as the young woman and the outcast miller. United in their thirst for knowledge, we see their turbulent relationship from different angles, until finally the young woman makes a lasting revelation. Knives in Hens explores a series of difficult relationships; between man and woman, land and farmer, urban and rural. And the idea that industrialisation of rural land may come at a high price is teased out over the course of this captivating and multilayered play.

Knives in Hens probes deeply into the importance of language to contextualise, transform and validate our sense of “self”. The language in the play itself switches from poetic, to blunt and broken, then back again. These stark differences highlight subtle transitional changes in the characters’ learning. As the characters gain more knowledge, they become increasingly articulate in their expression. The nuances in timing and delivery have been carefully thought out by Director Iain MacDonald and are perfectly executed.

The minimalistic approach to staging and design allows the drama to unfold without distraction. A simple set, for a not so simple play. This allows for all of your attention to settle on the mysterious trio; you might need your thinking hat for this one.


Alexander Stone

at 10:42 on 11th May 2012



As I entered the cramped space of the Alma Tavern (one of my favourite theatre spaces in Bristol) the air was hazy with smoke. The stage consisted of a grey, weather-worn wooden shack, with its sole props as a small chair and table with some writing paper on it. Knives in Hens is a very minimalist play, featuring just three actors and a couple more props throughout the hour and a half production. This rendition, produced and performed by MA students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School is complex and poignant.

From its drab pallet of greys, creams and browns, to its dearth of characters and props, this production perfectly eschews the poverty, simplicity and banality of pre-industrial life. From this setting, language is used as the modus operandi by which Knives in Hens explores a rapidly changing world. The play begins with an unnamed woman (Jennifer Greenwood) questioning her husband, a ploughman (Simon Victor), why he has described her as ‘a field’. Through her growing obsession with naming everything, the ploughman’s wife gains a newfound power and grows more and more unsettled with her place in the world as a quiet, ignorant farmer’s wife.

It is at the mill, sent there by her husband to have the year’s grain ground into flour, that this woman meets the miller (Isaac Stanmore). The villagers hate the miller, as he stands for everything threatening to destroy their way of life. He has no closeness to the land, no relationship with the changing seasons, or even with the day or night, as it does not affect his work. He earns his living purely through holding capital – the mill, rather than their traditional method of labour. While the water wheel grinds the corn he has time to sit and read, and importantly for the play, write. The god-fearing woman cannot help but be entranced by the miller’s freedom, by his own discovery of himself through the production of language. Equally though, this monumental assault on traditional subsistence life torments her.

The sound effects in this production are fantastic. From the bird calls of sunrise, to the gushing of water and grinding of stone at the mill, they are used sparingly and subtly. Knives in Hens is a play of many scenes, often switching scene after only a short exchange of words. Iain MacDonald and his team handled this aspect of the play very well, with measured actions and speeches and seamless transitions, so there is no sense of being rushed along. Whilst I love the Alma theatre, I do feel that Knives in Hens would have appreciated a bigger stage to better evoke the sparseness of population and grand landscape of tilled land of the period. That aside, all three characters felt perfectly cast and the performances were outstanding.



Amy S; 11th May 2012; 13:46:17

A masterful and breathtaking production.

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