We spoke to actor Christian Cooke about his role as Pony William in the Donmar Warehouse production of Knives in Hens.
Knives in Hens is set in a rugged ‘pre-industrial’ time and place far removed from contemporary life. What was the nature of the conversations with the director and fellow cast regarding how these characters exist, or even your own thought process?
A lot of the early work we did was physical. Lots of movements work to really get inside the bodies of these people and consider how they move. They are people of the land who were put to work from a young age so it was important for us to understand as much as possible, the nature of that hardship and how that reflected in their movement. And with that the economy of how they move when they’re not working.
We also spent hours talking about how relationships between men and women have changed throughout the years and how the ideas of masculine and feminine have also evolved over time. It was important for us not to judge these characters but to understand the world in which they were a part of.
Have your feelings of the play or your character shifted since you first performed it? If so why or how?
I don’t think my feelings towards William have changed. I’ve always understood him and sympathised with him and a strong sense of his own longing and pain. The great thing about theatre is that you’re always finding new things in the work and making new discoveries with the language. That’s the joy of repeating it every night. No two shows are ever the same and sometimes the language resonates in a new or different way.
Do you prefer having a more abstract, sparse setting/ environment for your performances? Does it pose a greater challenge or do you tend to find more with less?
I think as long as the set and the props you’re working with is true to the nature of the work you are doing and helps to define the directors vision, then that’s fine. When the set or props start to distract from the language or the work in a negative way, it’s better to strip things back.
What is your favourite moment in the play that doesn’t involve your character?
I love it when the Miller decides to leave and the Young Woman asks where he’s going and he replies, “to the town won’t call me, Miller.” I love that exchange. In fact that whole scene is my favourite scene in the play. The language is so economical and powerful. Both characters have grown and have a new horizon in their sights. It’s an extremely hopeful scene.
Applause and ovations notwithstanding – what has been the most rewarding moment of your experience on this production so far?
Working with Yael Farber. She’s an artist to her very core and someone who makes me want to be better every day.
What is a small perhaps even imperceptible detail from your performance or the play itself that is an incredibly significant element?
I think the speech that I have at the end of scene one about the field can be easily looked over because it comes so early in the piece. But it’s incredibly important to show William’s longing and pain and it’s a part of him that doesn’t resurface until the end. He hides that side of him for most of the play but it’s important that the audience remember that it exists within him.
Christian Cooke can be seen in Knives in Hens, on now until 7 October 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse, London (UK).
As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig