by Max Porter
Adapted & directed by Enda Walsh
Venue: O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin – 31 March 2018
Cast: Cillian Murphy, David Evans, Felix Warren, Taighen O’Callaghan
Producers: Complicité & Wayward Productions
It’s all too much for one man to bear: the devastating loss of his wife in a domestic accident, the wordless sadness swamping his two young sons, endless well-intentioned visits and acts of kindness from family and friends, his publisher impatiently awaiting delivery of a manuscript about the poet Ted Hughes and, at the climax of this emotional maelstrom, the unexpected invasion of that very thing with feathers which gave Hughes’s finest collection its stark, monosyllabic title. Crow.
With its scabrous poetic prose style and acute observation of bereavement, Max Porter’s 2015 award-winning début novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers made an indelible mark on the literary world and has offered an irresistible dramatic opportunity to the long-established collaborative partnership of writer/director Enda Walsh and actor Cillian Murphy.
Walsh’s eagerly anticipated adaptation broadly keeps faith with Porter’s original text, which comes right at us swathed in the visual onslaught of Jamie Vartan’s mischievous monochrome illustrations and giant animated graphics.
For all its dazzling theatrical jiggery pokery, the piece is at its most affecting when things are kept simple. It is both hard to watch and impossible to turn away from the heartbreaking sight of Murphy’s Dad and his sweet-faced boys – two finely judged performances by Felix Warren and David Evans – alone and disconnected from one another in their chaotic flat.
From time to time the outside world seeps in. Police sirens are heard in the street below; news bulletins report the IRA bomb in Enniskillen and the damaging effects of the great storm across the country. So, one deduces, the year is 1987, but that fact is an irrelevance. Attention is directed entirely on the here and now, onto this struggling little trio and the symbolic, poetically inspired lifeline thrown to them.
Unkempt and gaunt, Murphy’s stage presence is completely riveting. He looks punch drunk and adrift from reality; his voice wavers, his focus is blurred; he is barely functioning as a human being, let alone a parent. It is left to his motherless children to sort their daily routines and jumbled feelings, which they do with admirable purpose and composure.
Building on Porter’s surreal vision, Walsh suggests that at such times reconciliation can only come from within, presenting Crow not as an independent being but as an embodiment of the bereaved man.
Answering the doorbell on a stormy night, Murphy pulls the hood of his black dressing gown over his head to shield him from the rain and to ward off a swirling torrent of feathers which echo the deluge of words sprinting around the flat’s interior walls. He adopts a nimble, spindly posture like a character from an Arthur Rackham illustration, morphing into birdness in the blink of a beady eye, inhabiting the mythological being that is Crow.
Part scavenger, part grief counsellor, the creature moves in amongst them, declaring his intention to stay only for as long as he is needed. But will their need for him ever really come to an end?
The overall emotional impact of the piece is somewhat diminished by Crow’s plummy, slightly comic, weirdly distorted basso profondo delivery. There is, too, the risk of sensory overkill from the combination of Teho Teardo’s thunderous score, Adam Silverman’s hectic lighting, Helen Atkinson’s sinister, scratchy soundscape and Will Duke’s pulsating back projections, though it would be churlish to deny their individual and collective brilliance.
Perfectly crafted, tiny details partially correct the imbalance: the younger boy curled in a chair in front of the television, silently clutching his teddy; the older brother wearing his mother’s sandals as he watches her on an old home movie; the boys quietly making breakfast for themselves, as their father bangs out a barrage of random words on a manual typewriter; Murphy’s anguished face crumpling as he listens to his dead wife’s affectionate recorded account of his single, inconsequential encounter with Hughes. These minute glimpses of human experience, beautifully underplayed, are the snapshots of reality which remain lodged in the memory.
This is an extended version of the review which first appeared online in The Stage on 2 April 2018 and in the print version of the paper on 5 April 2018.