Paul T Davies reviews Grief Is The Thing With Feathers starring Cillian Murphy now playing at the Barbican Theatre.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers.
28 March 2019
Max Porter’s short, beautiful, powerful novel is a bruise of a book. A Ted Hughes scholar has two sons to care of following the death of his wife. Into his home moves Crow, antagonist, caring, baby sitting, nurturing, who will not leave until he is summoned to and recovery has began. It’s no surprise that Porter’s book won the International Dylan Thomas Prize, it is beautifully poetic, a powerful mediation on grief that helped me through my own grief. Therefore, I came to Enda Walsh’s production with many expectations, chief one being how such a book would transfer and translate to the stage?
Well, one aspect is a highly literal one- to etch, scrawl, type and project Porter’s text onto the set, allowing us to admire his words, his structure, and to take us through the classic stages of grieving. Its fragmentary nature, however, causes a lot of disconnection, and in places the production attempts to be too “in your face” to feel accessible. However, Cillian Murphy gives an excellent performance as Dad and as Crow, his vocal skills perfect as he adopts a rather gentlemanly voice for Crow, and Dad’s grief is beautifully played. The onslaught of grief is played through a megaphone with the music rocking and loud, the metaphor of being overwhelmed by sorrow is effectively constructed. Yet these scenes pushed me away from the central story – too much strobe lighting to bear- and here the book, turning the pages at your own pace, succeeds more than the stage version. Although there is wonderful inventiveness in every scene, (Dad’s Last Jedi look at the beginning, bags of chips drop from the sky to feed his boys), each scene feels too separate from the one before. Murphy’s physicality is superb; he is crow like, flaunting his claws and feathers, highly watchable throughout the 90 minutes running time.
We also slightly lose the boy’s story, played on press night by David Evans and Leo Hart, both beautifully performed, with lovely twists of representation, such as them appearing in “grown up” clothing towards the end to tell how they recovered. And where the production really begins to succeed is in the recovery stages, when we see Mum in home movies, when Dad can finally talk about the death, and the projection and sound design is tender.
Perhaps because reading a novel, and interpreting it, is such a private experience, and grief is, mainly, something we deal with in private, the novel is always going to be the key destination for anyone wanting to experience this tale. Overall, this adaptation is flawed, but ambitious, and there is much to admire in its bold interpretation.
Until 13 April 2019