Knives in Hens, Arcola Theatre, London


An early battle of the sexes

Tell me what's in your head," says the bold miller to the ploughman's wife, but she says it's full of things that have no name. David Harrower's drama, set in pre-industrial Scotland, pits man against woman, fear against learning, ends against means. In a beautifully cast and directed production such as Serdar Bilis has created, it is still powerful, if not as strikingly original as it once seemed at its premiere in 1995.

The woman, whose name we never learn, is not as dear to Pony William (Nathaniel Martello-White) as his horses. He doesn't hit her, which at this period in history practically makes him a New Man, but he wants her only for work and bed. When she faints, he calls her stupid, and says, as he leaves, "You be standing when I'm back!" Before she takes their grain to the mill, he drills her in the attitude she must adopt toward Gilbert Horn, whom all the villagers loathe because he profits from their labour and, not only that, reads books. But even after being made to shout, "I hate the miller! I hate the miller!" Woman falls for him and turns against her husband, who has barred her from the radiant world of knowledge, the miller reveals.

The experienced theatregoer has been here before – it's the setting of The Miracle Worker or Roots; one almost expects the suddenly awakened Woman to cry out, "I'm beginning!" And the sceptical theatregoer wonders how, if Woman has such a small vocabulary that at first she appears touched (she asks William to explain the word "like"), she knows how to write. But Bilis gives the story the mood of a folk tale or incantation, with soft or keen cello music and the actors whipping round one another as if in a dance of obsession.

Both Jodie McNee, as Woman, and Phil Cheadle, as Horn, give performances of great integrity and charm – though McNee doesn't need to be pop-eyed with wonder quite so often. But Martello-White is outstanding. We can hear the threat beneath his affection, but we are as taken in as Woman by his duplicity. This intense, unsettling young actor is sure to find wider stage very soon.

While the actors' ample talent makes the play pleasurable, their looks impair the suspension of disbelief. Though the play is set in a time when an attractive person was one with fewer boils and more remaining teeth than the rest, these three are all lookers by today's standards. It's hard to believe that this miller would be a pariah, or that Woman falls for him only because he respects her mind.

To 27 February (020 7503 1646)

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