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Grief is the Thing with Feathers
By Max Porter; adapted and directed by Enda Walsh
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Buy Tickets: Barbican Centre London until 13 April
Irish playwright-director Enda Walsh has taken Max Porter’s widely acclaimed 2015 novella, which broke new literary ground, and it turns out he is the perfect adapter for this scrappy, eerie, ominous meditation on the catastrophe of grief.
Following their success in Misterman and Ballyturk, both poetic, explosive, visually rich pieces, he reunites again with the great Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), who plays a grieving young father of two boys who are negotiating the sudden loss of their wife and mother.
Murphy gives another physical performance of great bravura and plays both the confused and bereft Dad, shuffling around making lists and the intriguing central protagonist - The Crow. Drawn by their grief, The Crow appears to the boys promising to stay with them until they no longer need him. He is a phantasmal, if rather sinister figure, who, like many non-human protagonists in children’s stories, is a companion to help humans to both overcome and incorporate their grief. Crows of course have had a bad rap in literature – always either harbingers of death, or tricksters, or linked to prophecy. Porter’s meditation follows on from Ted Hughes 1972 poem sequence ‘Crow’, a subject of study and obsession by the Dad character here who is writing a book on the poet.
Murphy is at his most touching and affecting as the ordinary-Joe, lost Dad, but this piece is no dirge. It is fired through with humor and quicksilver movement. One minute he is the helpless Dad, muddling through, and then Murphy lifts the hood of his dressing gown, stands bandy legged with his arms waggling, switches from foot to foot and is transformed into this gravelly voiced, patrician, creature.
The writing is fragmented and poetic and poses huge challenges for any adapter but Walsh is in his element here and he has the advantage not just of Murphy and the two boys to bring the characters to life but also of an astonishing creative team who transform it into pure theater.
Jamie Vartan’s bold visual design incorporates Will Duke’s huge, scratchy, graffiti projections which both disturb and distract with their beauty. Helen Atkinson’s sound design, which incorporates a bruising score by Teho Teardo and songs by Vanessa Paradis and Whitesnake, combine to give the piece a pulsating energy. It does overpower at times, and it will encourage you to seek out the novel, but when the storm of sound and images subside we are left with the gentle humanity of Murphy and his evocation of the numb banality of loss. Walsh is at once both very faithful to this exquisite text (whole passages are quoted) but also succeeds in rendering its poetic landscape in 3D form and in doing so transforms it.
Praise must also go to Hattie Morahan, who we only hear in an audio segment, but in that short time totally fleshes out the character of the Mother, recounting a trip Dad made to a literary event in Oxford where he fleetingly encountered his hero.
After the Crow has been banished Dad describes a touching scene where he takes the boys to a beach to spread the mother’s ashes and what is interesting is that while the Crow has taken the family through its grief (or was he actually the embodiment of that grief?) as the dark clouds slowly begin to lift, we witness his realization that grief doesn’t just end, it merely changes.