Monday, 8 February 2010


8/2/10, Arcola

Revival of the David Harrower play which launched his career in 1995 at the Traverse. He went on to write Blackbird, an extremely powerful piece about teacher-pupil relationships and abuse which I saw with Roger Allam (and Lea Williams?).

This is a three-hander involving a ploughman, William, his wife, known throughout as Woman, and a miller, in some dirt-poor place in medieval Scotland. The villagers ostracise the miller. The wife is despatched with the grain. She's fearful of the miller, who sits and reads and writes. The ploughman spends his time with his horses in the stable at night (and with another woman?). The woman gradually discovers the power of language: the naming of things, to the greater glory of God (the miller doesn't believe in God).

It opens with a riff about language and meaning. The ploughman tells his wife she's a field. She protests that she's not a field, she's herself. He tells her she's like a field and even tells her precisely which one. In time she apparently outdoes him in her capacity for language. In the central scene of the play she sits in the miller's house and writes at length what she sees in the world and its significance.

The title refers to a moment when the wife likens words to the way a knife opens the belly of a hen as she kills it.

All rather allusive but at times quite haunting. A programme note by Mark Fisher claims Harrower can't remember writing it: his subconscious took over. It is, says Fisher, mysterious: "a play more dreamed than written." He says its international success may be explained by the openness of the script to interpretation: "It has an elemental quality that strikes a chord across cultures." The starting point was apparently T C Smout's A History of thr Scottish People 1560-1830, and Harrower's interest in a subsistence economy where survival is paramount and creativity is a luxury. "The characters use a language that is without decoration, treating metaphors with the same suspicion as any threat to their perilous way of life. They lack the vocabulary not just for abstract ideas but for anything surplus to their immediate requirements." Which presumably also helps to explain why it translates so well.

Done in the Arcola's Studio 2, a tiny space entered by going back out of the Arcola's front door and round the side. Very cold. The space had three wooden pillars which were cleverly used to suggest doorways, stables and changes of scene.

The husband, William, was OK; the miller not bad; the wife, played by Jodie McNee, was outstanding: small, north country accent (the men's accents were all over the place and none of them remotely Scottish), face that lit up when she smiled, not beautiful. She reminded us a bit of Jane Horrocks. There was a solo cello accompaniment from a (very beautiful) Portuguese musician called Maria Rijo Lopes da Cunha who also sang a lament-like song (presumably Persian or some such because she's currently developing her stuies in Persian Classical Music at SOAS) while the wife wrote her testament.

On the way from work I read a stinker of a review in the Evening Standard and feared the worst, but it turned out to b very creditable. S said she found it quite moving.

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