Written by Zak Jackman-Sherliker
Cillian Murphy had a challenging task in this play in portraying two protagonists embodied in one person. There is the menacing crow juxtaposed with the grieving father. True to form, he manages this with great skill as we are taken on a voyage into the deep and endless sea of grief. Max Porter captures the essence of raw human pain in his writing which is such a gift for any actor to convey. We are left in no doubt as soon as the nib of the pen screeches onto the projector, cutting to the core of grief that we have entered into a very private, very intimate realm that is as full of intrigue as it is despair.
Murphy’s dynamism and energy are nothing less than athletic. At times the play feels as though it borders on physical theatre as the menacing crow takes a firmer hold on its victim writhing, convulsing and jumping around the stage. The deliberate bareness of the set gives way to the Crow’s presence; this could be any London flat at any time which is precisely what gives the narrative a further element of poignancy. One feels as a spectator, strangely detached from the narrative, moreover, alienated in the Brechtian sense of the word. There are no unnecessary embellishments, no frills, just the seamlessly endless and cluttered confusion of grief.
This sense of detachment is often part and parcel of the grieving process. His two sons are at least for the first part of the play, props setting the scene and tone of what is to come. By giving the boys very little to do in the Part One, we are left in no doubt of the impact that is brought to bear on boys without their mother.
For the entire play you are breathing through the grief as though transported ethereally and surreally in to shock. It is loud, bleak and hard hitting with both moments of humour and beauty. There is an anthropomorphic synergy that provides contrast and rhythm throughout. After the first visitation of the Crow, he leaves a feather on the boy’s pillow as though grief has marked its territory, taking no prisoners and moving in for the long haul. There is no escape and that is what makes this play so enthralling. It wills you at every stage to stay strong with the protagonist and go through this spiritual process from start to finish. You are held captive as it swings between the utterly surreal and the disengaged, dead pan reality of loss and finally levelling out at acceptance. This is a play worth the pain if only simply to grapple collectively with this ever so human of experiences, the loss of a loved one.
Enda Walsh’s directing leaves no stone unturned. His realisation of Porter’s meditation is an echo chamber between life and death. The stage becomes a kind of hellish limbo relieved only by brief glimpses into quotidian London life.
One gets a sense of the futility of loss when Crow is at his most menacing, promising to reconstruct their mother from descriptive fragments and drawings hashed together in desperation:
“The telly went off and crow suggested a game, you two boys much each build here on the floor – a model of your mother just as you remember her! And whichever of you builds the best model will win”.
(Faber and Faber London, Grief is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter pp 28-29)
The boys set about in a hurry to construct something true to the likeness of their mother but are of course, left disappointed, angry and betrayed by the Crow. Their Father (Murphy) is bemused as to what he has promised having been hijacked by the Crow he constantly has to overpower in order to continue to be a father.
A superb cast delivering to us an insight into the minds-eye of grief, a subject oft-overlooked and much-less talked about. Perhaps Porter has lifted the lid for us to be able to explore the grieving process and find what it is that binds us. Porter wanted his book to be, “stabbing and jarring and suddenly very beautiful”. (Interview with Max Porter “5x15 Stories”) This contrast of the violent and the beautiful is present in a play that thrashes you to the rocks then stitches you back up and invites you to afternoon tea. It is an anthropomorphic ode to grief.
Enda Walsh’s realisation of Porter’s work is very inkeeping with Porter’s desire to resolve the play in beauty. There remains an unresolved continuum for the observer. Porter addresses grief on its own terms in this fine eulogy to Ted Hughes’ poem. The entire rhythm of the play rises and falls continuously as the nightmare progresses. Yet through all this entangled grief there is hope and resolution; a sense that life goes on.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers is showing at The Barbican Theatre until 13th April 2019