Knives in Hens
TAG Theatre Company
touring until March 16
tel 0141 552 4949
When a theatre director jumps train suddenly, in the way Emily Gray departed TAG when its grant was abruptly slashed, the new man at the controls can hardly do more than keep the company on the rails. Only now, a year on, is Guy Hollands making for his own destinations.
His first stop is David Harrower's Knives in Hens, an expressionist drama of plain language, stark setting and such peasant simplicity that, in the first 10 years of its life, it has already been translated into a hatful of European languages.
The author sets the play "in a rural place", an infertile country where the toil of wresting a living leaves little time for "civilisation". At a metaphorical level, however, we are in a dust-bowl Garden of Eden, where the Serpent once again insinuates himself between a man and his wife.
The young Adam of the play, given a robust animal vigour by Sam Heughan, earns his bread by the sweat of his brow, at the same time earning himself the nickname of Pony William for his practice of exerting his dominion over the beasts of the field in an unusual and private manner.
The Serpent is the miller, that maverick of village life, a man traditionally apart by virtue of his workplace, skill and prosperity.
Building on this otherness, John Kazek uses a dark and secretive persona to seduce Eve into plucking from the Tree of Knowledge the fruit of writing, that daring and dangerous business of capturing ideas in ink on paper.
It is biting on this apple that begins the transformation of this Eve from the hardly articulate and sexually incompetent young wife of the opening scenes to the liberated woman of the closing moments. This growing-up - a favourite theme of playwrights - is the entire business of the play.
For the central character, Hollands has gone to Rosalind Sydney, whose talent for expressing vulnerable virtue was first seen in her Cordelia in TAG's adaptation of King Lear. Now, unsexed from head to foot in drab, shapeless clothes, pale-faced and hair apparently in curlers, she works through the plainness and inarticulacy to give a performance of rapport.
Encouraged to play straight to the audience, with her expressive eyes, pliant body and voice resoundingly clear yet capable of every nuance, she fills the considerable spaces between the words of this skeletal text.
Although the only journey of the play takes place in her mind, she succeeds in shepherding the audience every step of the way, from the first moments of seeing the miller, when she makes their divergent eyebeams as solid as the timbers of the mill itself, to the end and the unfolding of that first, radiant smile. It is a performance of great power, at the centre of a production that holds tension for the full 75 minutes of the single act.
Neil Warmington has designed a set of natural symmetry to furnish the emblematic world of the play, the plain, square gate of the byre opening on the circle of the mill. Paul Sorley's lighting manages to give that world the darkness of ignorance and superstition while letting us see their faces, and John Irvine's soundtrack is not a rumble or a note more than the empty landscape needs.
It is a production that slips easily into mainstream theatre, and TAG reminds itself of its own billing as "Scotland's national theatre company for young people" by adding on educational apparatus.
Emily Ballard, under her new title of creative learning director, offers a free lecturedemonstration to every school party and post-play discussions after most performances, plus helpful notes on the playwright and text on TAG's website.
However, they caution teachers against bringing children under 14 years because of "strong language and scenes of a sexual nature" and they invite teacher discretion as to whether their drama and English students are ready for a play whose message is that the path to redemption lies through murder, rapturous, consensual heterosexual sex and creative writing. They might at least want to change the order.