Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

Max Porter, Adapted by Enda Walsh
Wayward Productions
Barbican Theatre

Cillian Murphy Credit: Tim Walker
Cillian Murphy Credit: Colm Hogan
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers Credit: Colm Hogan

This touring adaptation by Enda Walsh, who also directs for Wayward Productions, of Max Porter’s award-winning debut novel is a strange mix of the real and the surreal.

What is, without wishing to detract from the performances of the boys playing Dad’s two pre-teen sons, close to a solo performance from screen superstar Cillian Murphy deals with the sensitive topic of grief.

As the play opens, Dad is barely able to move following the early death of his wife, portrayed on screen by Hattie Morahan. Suddenly, rather than being part of a happy, balanced family, he not only needs to battle his own demons but provide support to the boys, played on opening night by David Evans and Leo Hart.

Instead of a straightforward 90-minute meditation on death, life and the need to go on regardless of the pain that the loss of a loved one causes, Max Porter injects an element that starts out as poetic but ends up closer to the stuff of graphic novels, particularly thanks to regular appearances from threatening flights of murderous birds.

Changing his accent and—to a limited extent, utilising a hooded towelling robe—appearance Cillian Murphy takes on the role of mysterious Crow, very much the Ted Hughes incarnation rather than the real thing.

Now, we find ourselves in writer / academic Dad’s head while he wrestles with the almost demonic black bird, as a means of avoiding the rather more mundane problems of real life.

What could be a rather distracting and meaningless series of scenes, breaking up the touching moments when Dad and the kids each provide support to the other or others, works well visually and orally thanks to a series of computer-generated images designed by Will Duke within an overall set design of Jamie Vartan, accompanied by compositions from Teho Teardo.

The design concept, on and behind a wide set that is too large to create the appropriate intimacy for a family home in London, also encompasses constant suggestions that events are taking place in the 1980s, the iconography including a series of images of women with big hair and almost forgotten songs such as Vanessa Paradis’s once iconic "Joe le taxi".

For some viewers, Enda Walsh’s concentration on the crow scenes may seem overdone, taking the eye away for too long from the quieter, more moving story of how three menfolk in a family overcome the loss of a much-loved wife / mother as they seek closure on a new, more limited future. However, the symbolism is powerful and Cillian Murphy clearly relishes his dual roles in an evening that will give viewers much to ponder.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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