Diana Bentley on KNIVES IN HENS, “a great contemporary play about a young woman who is fierce…and wild”

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Diana Bentley Knives in Hens; photo by Kristina Ruddick

I feel like David Harrower’s Knives in Hens is a play that slipped past me. I have a vague recollection of hearing its title some years ago, but not much more. So naturally, my curiosity was piqued when I read that the play would open Coal Mine Theatre’s 6th season, directed by Leora Morris. As I read the release, that feeling would grow. It describes the play as a complex fable of awakening consciousness that is set in a rural community in a pre-industrial era. Diana Bentley plays the sole female role, a character known only as Young Woman. She is bound to a village ploughman named Pony William (Jim Mezon), and they live in a timeless, God-fearing village. Like the other villagers, Young Woman fears and loathes the local miller, Gilbert Horn (Jonathan Young). Yet when she meets and gets to know him, she comes to understand the power of language, which rouses her consciousness and a desire to live the life she truly wants for herself. 

Knives in Hens was Harrower’s first play, premiering at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in June 1995. Almost a quarter-century later, the theme of a woman’s discovery of her identity and power resonates more than ever. The play has played in over 30 countries, and is finally making its welcome Canadian debut in Coal Mine’s intimate 80-seat theatre. And while Knives in Hens is new to me, Bentley’s work is most certainly not. Her talent and self-possession extend beyond the stage and screen to life. In addition to being an accomplished actor, she is the co-founder and co-chief engineer of Coal Mine, with her husband, award-winning actor-writer-director Ted Dykstra. While it’s always a pleasure to watch her at work, it is no less a thrill to indulge my curiosity about Knives in Hens through a brief conversational prelude. 

SesayArts: How would you describe Knives In Hens and your character, Young Woman? And what was your attraction to the role?

DB: Apparently, the playwright David Harrower doesn’t remember writing Knives in Hens—and there’s something about that that you can feel when you read it, and are inside it as an actor. The play is this incredible exploration of language, awakening, sexuality and creativity…and so much more. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s something so fitting about Young Woman’s journey in terms of what so many young women are grappling with right now. She’s deeply curious and yet lives in this pre-industrial world where her creativity is stifled by the men around her. Her journey and breakthrough was hugely attractive to me as an actor.

SesayArts: Why did you want Knives In Hens to be a part of Coal Mine’s current theatre season?

DB: It’s rare to find a great contemporary play about a young woman who is fierce, curious, empowered, sensual and wild. For me personally – I’m drawn to stories about women like that. I flock towards them in my own life as collaborators and mentors. I flock towards them as writers (just finished Patti Smith’s M Train and just love her so much). Programming a play about a character who is full of wildness and curiosity felt exciting and important.  

SesayArts: What has surprised you about the production and your co-stars during rehearsals so far?

DB: I was intimidated going into rehearsals with my co-stars Jim Mezon (Shaw Festival) and Jonathon Young (Electric Company Theatre). They are both so formidable and accomplished and talented. But my amazement and learning has been at how much trust, openness and exploration there has been. I feel so secure and supported in the process with these two men, and guided by our director Leora Morris, feel like I can go anywhere. That’s really new and exciting for me as an actor and something I have always longed for. 

SesayArts: Why is Knives in Hens a good play for Toronto audiences to experience now, in your view, and who should come and see it?

DB: I was saying to our director Leora the other day—this play isn’t just about language, or nature or sex or a quest for freedom—it is about something more profound that only you, as an audience member gets to witness and experience and name for yourself. I think seeing this play will resonate with a lot of people, maybe especially women. There is a rawness to it that I think we need to touch right now and need to experience for many reasons. Our modern world somehow takes us away from the visceral. Away from touch and grit and the sensorial, and I think this play brings us back to all of that richness. 

SesayArts: The final word is yours! What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

DB: Tickets are selling really fast so if you want to see Knives in Hens by David Harrower get your ticket fast! Must close October 13th.

News You Can Use

What: Knives in Hens by David Harrower  | presented by Coal Mine Theatre  | Directed by Leora Morris

Performed by Diana Bentley (Young Woman), Jim Mezon (Pony William), and Jonathon Young (Gilbert Horn)

When: On stage until October 13, 2019 | running time: 75 minutes (no intermission)

Where: 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, ON 

Info and Tickets: www.coalminetheatre.com

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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