I have no word for what is in my head.
Linguistic relativity is the principle that language affects how we think and understand our environment. In its ‘strong’ form, it represents the supposition that a person cannot think outside of the language available to them, whilst in it’s ‘weak’ form it suggests that language influences thought to a greater or lesser extent. Although now largely discredited in its ‘strong’ form, linguistic relativity is one of the first debates linguistics students are introduced to, perhaps because it feels instinctively implausible (the belief that certain sensations, such as pain, are ‘beyond words’ is commonplace enough to show we don’t think language governs experience) and yet also very credible given the transformative effect language and literacy can have on the writer and reader.
When the Young Woman (Judith Roddy) in David Harrower’s Knives in Hens grapples for more words to assign to what she sees and what she feels, the play attests to both the importance of language as the provider of agency, and the limitations of it. Even with ‘no word for what is in my head’, the young woman is still capable of bearing witness to her own emotional state or that of the world around her. More than that, her search for words to describe something she already has knowledge of pinpoints how language can often feel like a secondary add-on: we experience and then we try to describe. In this way, and several others, Knives in Hens is a play that is both about language and not about language.
And this is true even before you get to the specifics of the script. Like all pieces of theatre, Yaël Farber’s production is a conversation between the verbal and the non-verbal. The director’s work, arguably more than most, is especially adroit at the alchemy of making words dissolve into images. All staged works, however, use a balance of what is seen and what is heard to tell the audience a story. Watching theatre in a foreign language with no subtitles can be instructive in showing how much is still communicated even when language is absent.
Let’s start with Roddy as the Young Woman. The character might want for words to describe what’s in her head, but the audience watching her already share in knowing a large part of it. The truth of her life is in her eyes; wide-open, often scared eyes that contribute to the woman resembling a wild, scampering animal [insert your own choice here. Rabbits and fawns seem too Disneyfied, and rodents too skittish, but it’s something of all these. Maybe a wildcat]. What we popularly call ‘body language’ is another testament to our acceptance that words do not form the extent of our interactions. In one scene, Roddy is folded like origami into the space between the shinbones of her seated husband. One hand clasps the material of his trouser leg like a child grasping the bed blanket. In another, she is tall and solid despite her flickering eyes. The audience knows how to interpret all this; we don’t need a script to describe the Young Woman’s gradual transformation across the course of the play.
Then there are all the other components of a production that function individually and as part of the whole. In the case of Knives in Hens, we have Tim Lutkin’s lighting design creating an uneasy sense of threat when it bathes the setting in fiery oranges that, along with the globe-like millstone looming at the back of the stage, tie the human characters and their lives to an ever-present idea of the natural world, its beauty and its danger. Alongside this is Isobel Waller-Bridge’s compositions, a semi-apocalyptic pool of strings and low-lying rumbles. For the majority of the production, the foregrounding of the whirling sound is effective in maintaining the growing agitation underscoring the plot. One short blast of a bizarre recreation of horse snorting, however, demonstrates how sound can both make or momentarily break the spell of being in a theatre.
Along with sound and sight, Farber’s Knives in Hens attends more thoroughly to sensory perception than most pieces of theatre. It also gives the audience smell. An almost-too-much smell, a smell that starts to slip into the back of the mouth. It hits you as soon as you walk through the auditorium entrance, a heady smell like wet sawdust; damp yet dusty dry at the same time. The dirty, rough smell of a rural location. It’s this smell that probably best hints at what this play is about.
But before we get to that, the role of language cannot be ignored. Within the narrative, the Young Woman’s seizing of the pen belonging to the miller, Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), to write her own story marks the beginning of her autonomous life outside of her husband, Pony William (Christian Cooke). Harrower’s script, however, explores the power infused in language in more subtle ways than just the plot. The dialogue demonstrates how we attempt to expand language using basic devises like simile (Pony William says his wife is ‘like a field’ – presumably hinting that she’s ripe for planting seed in?) and how we squeeze meaning out of it by creating clichés from over-use (Gilbert Horn utters one of the worst offenders in the English language when he says ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ as the Young Woman walks from his house).
Yet despite how language appears pivotal to Knives in Hens, the real impetus behind the events occurring resides in all that it is unspoken. Propelling the characters forwards are not words, but compulsions, urges, emotions. This is what Farber gets right when she assigns a smell to the play (scent being a particularly tricksy thing to translate into words). Harrower plays with the forces and desires that connect humans to animals, to the land and, of course, to other humans. Desires that are grimy, murderous and inarticulate.
Knives in Hens is on until 7 October 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.