Knives In Hens

Perth Theatre

Until February 17

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The Match Box

Seen at Byre Theatre,

St Andrews

Touring until February 24

Reviewed by Mark Brown

THE 1990s was, arguably, the most fertile decade in the entire history of Scottish playwriting. It's a bold claim, of course, but one supported by the emergence of such playwrights as David Greig, Zinnie Harris, Anthony Neilson and, as this production of the 1995 drama Knives In Hens reminds us, David Harrower.

Set in a pre-industrial society, Harrower's play traces the relationship between a (significantly) unnamed young, female field-hand and Gilbert Horn, the local miller. Horn is despised and feared by the villagers in equal measure, on account of both his literacy and his legal right to a portion of their grain.

In a break with convention, the young woman's ploughman husband (nicknamed Pony William by the villagers, due to his strong affection for his horses) sends her to mill the grain. Although she accosts Horn with customary hostility, the field labourer soon finds that the miller can help her unlock doors of experience that were previously firmly sealed.

The play that emerges is absolutely unique, sparsely poetic and deeply affecting. Its care with language (which is a central concern for the young woman) is reminiscent of the assiduous selecting (and removing) of words in the work of Harold Pinter.

It's little wonder that the piece has been performed in at least 25 countries, being staged most recently at the Donmar Warehouse in London, in the summer and autumn of last year. It's surprising, however, that Lu Kemp's production for the recently redeveloped Perth Theatre should be just the fourth professional staging of the play in Scotland.

It's almost seven years since postmodern Flemish director Lies Pauwels, in the words of one critic, "exploded [Harrower's drama] to the four corners of the stage" for the National Theatre of Scotland. Pauwels's production was a kind of stress test for the play, and, if it proved anything, it proved that the delicate balance of Knives In Hens deserves to be treated with considerably more care.

Kemp's staging stands in stark contrast with Pauwels's noisy, upstart version. Her production is, like the play itself, careful and confident as it reveals, with deceptive subtlety, an awakening in the young woman which is, by normal human standards, startlingly rapid.

Rhys Rusbatch plays Pony William with an intriguing sensuousness. Oblivious to the fatal flaw within his divided desires, he has an earthy physicality no less tangible than that of his "field-like" wife.

Michael Moreland gives an equally interesting performance as Horn. Whereas an American movie director might (God forbid) cast an actor like George Clooney in the role, Moreland gives us a more understated charisma, which is barbed and bruised by his life experience.

Fine though these performances are, however, there's no doubting that the pinnacle of the play's triangular relations is the young woman herself. Exceptional, young actor Jessica Hardwick could almost have been born for the role.

By turns uncertain, defiant, innocent and impulsive, she is ravenous for knowledge and experience. Simultaneously multifarious and consistent, Hardwick's performance is like a human embodiment of the paradoxes in the poetry of William Blake ("You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough").

The perfect poise of Kemp's production is reflected gorgeously in Jamie Vartan's impressive set. Semi-abstract and dominated by a huge aperture in the shape of a millstone, it is illuminated with dramatic nuance by lighting designer Simon Wilkinson.

Also boasting an intelligently attuned, atmospheric soundscape by Luke Sutherland, this is a staging worthy of one of the greatest plays in the Scottish theatrical canon.

From one of Scotland's most acclaimed dramatists to a leading contemporary Irish playwright. Frank McGuinness is, perhaps, best known for his exceptional play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme. However, as his one-woman drama The Match Box attests, he has a breadth of interest, both in subject matter and theatrical form, which is akin to that of his compatriot, the late Brian Friel.

Set in contemporary Liverpool, the piece is a first-person narrative delivered by Sal, the working-class, Scouse daughter of Irish migrant parents. Performing on a set which collides simple domesticity with the front pages of tabloid newspapers, actor Janet Coulson unfolds the story of the brutal accident involving Sal's 12-year-old daughter, Mary, and of the subsequent anguish of Sal and her family.

As she does so, one starts to wonder (as one sometimes does with monodramas) if McGuinness's piece is actually a play. Engaging and powerful though the story is, not least in its contemplation of the morality of vengeance, it never really breaks from the sense that it is a prose fiction that has simply been dropped onto the stage.

Great monodramas grow organically from a theatrical impulse. We see this in the performative dynamism and artistic invention of theatremakers such as Tim Crouch (An Oak Tree, England) and Guy Masterson (Animal Farm, Shylock). However, too many single-actor shows are merely storytelling (a very valid art form in its own right) masquerading as theatre.

Fluid and absorbing though McGuinness's tale is, there is not enough going on, visually or in Coulson's occasionally unsteady performance, to overcome the feeling that one would have been as well reading the text at home.

Richard Baron directs the production with a steady hand for Hawick-based touring company Firebrand. However, one can't help but wish he and the company had a selected a piece which was written for the stage, rather than the page.

For tour dates for The Match Box, visit: firebrandtheatre.co.uk