Knives in Hens

Belgian theatremaker Lies Pauwels adapts David Harrower's pre-industrial drama

Knives in Hens

Until a few months ago, Lies Pauwels had never read Knives in Hens, David Harrower’s pre-industrial tale of a woman’s progress from ignorance to literacy. Now, the Belgian theatremaker is directing a new National Theatre of Scotland production of the 1995 play, which will tour the country in June and July starting at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Pauwels has many links with Scotland, having previously worked with Tramway and participated in RSAMD’s Diaspora platform. This production will mark the first time she has directed an existing work and she sees a strong affinity between Harrower’s text and her own artistic approach. ‘This text is very layered and intangible, complex, unclear, confusing, stimulating, unexpected – in the same ways I like to construct my shows, with a similar degree of unpredictability. David Harrower uses words to do that and my language is that of the stage, the language of “showing” and of the images that emerge from it.’

16 years on, Knives in Hens is revered as a modern classic and, as its many revivals attest, has become ingrained into the tradition of British theatre performance. Tradition, however, is something that Pauwels rejects completely. ‘In Belgium,’ she explains, ‘we don’t have a centuries-old theatre tradition. I think that makes us less bound by conventions. In a very respectful way, we treat things with less respect. And isn’t that what this play is about as well? About getting rid of something, freeing yourself from something that is holding you back.’

But Pauwels’ involvement in the show is also about coming together. ‘It’s an exercise in bringing together different theatre cultures,’ she says, ‘trying to let them reinforce each other. In my work I always try to bring together elements that you wouldn’t immediately expect to work. And that way you discover much more of what you didn’t know.’

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Sat 4–Sat 11 Jun, then touring throughout Scotland.

Knives in Hens

  • 4 stars

A love triangle in a pre-industrial landscape leads to a young woman making a remarkable journey from ignorance to knowledge, mirroring the transition from rural to urban going on in the world around her. A new production of David Harrower's internationally successful play from the National Theatre of Scotland.

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