Donmar Warehouse, London – until 7 October 2017
A PRIMITIVE AWAKENING … It is dark. An earth floor, plank stable door, murky pond. Sometimes a candle is lit, but Soutra Gilmour’s set remains tenebrous, primitive. A woman sits plucking a chicken, legs apart, with sullen concentration. A man comes and throws her to the ground for sex so urgent you wonder if it is rape. But no, they talk amicably, if in short rather contemptuous basic sentences. “I”m not a field,” she says. He demurs, says she is LIKE a field, a fertile one he likes, flat and wet. She says she is not because after all, “the moon is like cheese, but it’s not IT”.
We are in some indeterminate, pre-industrial rural village society. Both are groping for more expressive language, words for things. “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow. The bird flies. The rabbit runs” she says, then looking upward “the clouds..er.. run?” The matter of God – indeterminate, universal – comes up soon. And alongside the primal, slowly awakening urge for words and knowledge in the woman, so do still more basic conflicts and dark deeds.
The fierce Yael Farber gave us a profound, five-star, smoky dark and physically intense Crucible at the Old Vic. It is not surprising that this director’s vision should now be drawn to David Harrower’s uncompromising, superstitious primitive portrait. But Miller’s language is poetic and his Salem setting precise.
This is harder work to appreciate: gruelling, indeed even at 90 minutes and even with a blazingly effective, courageous and committed performance by Judith Roddy as the woman. She is, we gradually see, married to the ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke) and envious of his love of his horses, notably his pregnant mare. He sends her to drag their sacks of grain to the mill, where the widowed Miller (Matt Ryan) is feared and disliked for his “magic” tendency to read and his ownership of an actual pen (“Them’s an evil stick!” cries the woman).
She fears, defies him, says she “lives under a different sky” and defends her village world: all in short, harsh, limited sentences. But the fascination grows, and back with William her dreams (hauntingly staged) fill with visions of his sprinkling the fine flour onto her heaving body. There is an obvious metaphor, I think: crude basic grain is refined by the miller’s hard stone into something finer, just as her thoughts refine. In one of the play’s few rhetorical moments she begins to write: “This is me. I live now. Others have, more will. God put me here..each day I want to know more”. But the new knowledge, as in Eden, leads to a dramatic sin. Again, compellingly staged.It’s a very large millstone.
But I would be lying if I said that it made the time fly by. The indeterminate setting hampers it: when, where are these people? How evolved is their religion, with all this talk of God? William has horses, not oxen, which puts them into the 18th century at least, but the ceremony of rolling a new millstone seems importantly primitive. They appear to have a glass milk bottle, the Miller has books on shelves, and the woman rather startlingly beneath her coarse homespun robe has a neat modern bra and pants. The unclear setting kept bothering me, making the simple speech seem mannered. Once the words “Cold Comfort Farm” ran through my mind.
But its meaning and message about the birth of language and awakening of choice may move some deeply, and it was hailed as a classic in its original Traverse production. The cast are very fine , and Farber and Gilmour can certainly build an atmosphere: that it was one I was glad to get out of may reflect more on me than them.
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 7 October
Principal Sponsor: Barclays