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Diana Bentley, Jim Mezon and Jonathon Young, standing, star in Knives in Hens at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre.

Dahlia Katz

  • Knives in Hens
  • Written by David Harrower
  • Genre Drama
  • Directed by Leora Morris
  • Starring Diana Bentley, Jim Mezon and Jonathon Young
  • Company and Venue Coal Mine Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Runs to Sunday, Oct. 13

rating

A young peasant in medieval Scotland is addressing her husband, flabbergasted. “How’m I a field?” she asks him, confused. He has just used a metaphor, comparing her to a beautiful plot of land he saw as a boy. Trouble is, she’s never encountered a metaphor before.

David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, the season opener at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, is a poetic play about the power of language to unfetter the mind. First produced in the playwright’s native Edinburgh in 1995, it’s now considered a modern Scottish classic. But I’ll admit that, before now, I hadn’t seen or read it. And I’ll also admit I’m disappointed.

Not by Harrower’s writing, which is magical in its spare beauty. This is a work that makes us appreciate what we often take for granted. When his raw, unlettered heroine discovers the wonder of words and the world that they can open up for her, we share in her elation.

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Nor is there a problem with the Coal Mine production. Director Leora Morris has given the play a stark, seductive treatment and her three actors are flawless.

My issue is with a celebration of empowerment that involves unjustified murder. I won’t spoil the plot, but let’s just say that the play’s spell is broken when it ultimately devolves into a fatal love triangle out of a James M. Cain story. Call it medieval noir.

The time and place of the play aren’t indicated, but Harrower has said he was thinking of Gorebridge, a village in the Scottish Lowlands, in the 15th century. His heroine, too, is never named. She’s the young wife of Pony Williams, a much older plowman, who is only interested in her as a helper and a source of sexual gratification. He has no patience for her restless desire to know more.

Instead, she finds a mentor in Gilbert Horn, the village’s mysterious and much-reviled miller. He’s a man who reads books and writes down his thoughts. He’s also a widower who is said to have killed his wife.

The play is at its most compelling, not in its later grim denouement, but in its depiction of the woman’s growing knowledge, cutting like a knife through the ignorance and superstition that has kept her enslaved. Inspired, she writes a manifesto, a declaration of freedom. Horn, meanwhile, has a further revelation, the stunning realization that he, not God, has control of his thoughts. There go the chains of religion, too.

Coal Mine co-founder Diana Bentley, left, gets a showcase role as the nameless young woman.

Dahlia Katz

Since Knives in Hens, Harrower has become better known for the more controversial Blackbird, a drama about pedophilia that was made into a film (Una, starring Rooney Mara) and has had at least a couple of productions in Toronto. Like that play, Knives in Hens offers a terrific role for a younger actress, which may be one reason for its ongoing popularity.

It’s certainly a good showcase for Diana Bentley, the Coal Mine’s co-founder. Robust and radiant, she portrays her character’s intellectual awakening with a near-rapturous excitement. She is joined by Jonathon Young as a deceptively gentle Horn and an especially enjoyable Jim Mezon as William.

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Mezon is, of course, a past master of brutish roles, but here he adds surprising modulations. His William can be lecherous one minute but tender the next, and his description of that remembered field suggests a man with some finer feelings. He is hardly deserving of his fate.

Morris’s staging plunges us into the dirt and darkness of ignorant times. Kaitlin Hickey’s set is a patch of soil in the middle of the Coal Mine’s tiny space. Her lighting shrouds it in gloom. Michelle Tracey’s costumes are a medley of earth tones and Christopher Ross-Ewart contributes a dark musical score.

Harrower’s play didn’t satisfy me, but it did leave me wondering what we poor critics would do without metaphors.

Knives in Hens continues to Oct. 13. (coalminetheatre.com)

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