Max Porter’s novel, about a man mourning the loss of his wife and trying to care for his now motherless sons, emerges from an act of literary defacement. The first word of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers’ – is substituted with ‘Grief’. The melancholic substitution works remarkably well, suggesting how easily grief can slip in through the front door and leave black feathers on your pillow. The book itself combines poetry, essay, stories, jokes and illustrations, refusing the shape of more conventional expressions of grief, blunted from repeated use.
Enda Walsh’s stage adaptation, first performed in Galway this time last year, retains the jagged edges of Porter’s book. Cillian Murphy as Dad pours monologues of numbed shock directly into the audience, as two boys sleep in a bunk bed behind him. When the boys speak they mostly do so through voiceover, with almost alarming articulacy, such as when they describe killing a fish in a rockpool, while a video projection of a beach plays. It is not always clear what these vignettes are supposed to amount to; like the book, this play refuses a linear narrative of recovery and moving on from grief.
And then there’s Crow, lifted from a Ted Hughes poetry collection (Dad is supposed to be writing a book on Hughes), winging his way into their lives and minds. A feathered knot of contradictions: funereal and ribald, cruel and sentimental. Crow, telling dirty jokes, throwing papers into the air, and humping the study desk, is unseemly in the house of death. And yet, his carnivalesque presence provides a kind of release for the father: to laugh, to say cruel things, to contemplate the sexual – which all seem taboo behaviours for those in mourning.
Cillian Murphy plays Crow as Dad’s alter ego, flipping up his dark dressing gown over his face and speaking in an amplified, villainous drawl. With sinuous physicality, he bounds across the stage and leaps up onto the desk, which he makes his own. Murphy gives a virtuosic performance in the two roles, emphasising the crossover between Dad, driven almost animal by grief, and Crow, almost human in his intelligence. I expected him to sprout feathers and a beak and was almost disappointed when he did not.
Crow makes his presence felt more abstractly in the design of the production. Jamie Vartan’s minimalist, blank-walled house is brilliantly brought to life by Will Duke’s video projections and Helen Atkinson’s sound design. With the sound of talons on a blackboard, skrittery black letters are scratched out on the walls, introducing the title of each part. At one point, the walls fill up with scribbles and scraps of texts to form a cacophonous, overwhelming ink blot.
The word deface has two main meanings: ‘to mar the appearance of, to spoil the figure, form, or beauty of, to disfigure’; or ‘to blot out, obliterate, efface’. Crow defaces in the first sense but not the second. He mars the white walls of the house, disfigures the inhabitants’ lives, bursts the containers of expressions of grief that are acceptable to those who have not been touched by loss. But he does not obliterate loss, just as the production does not palliate it or smooth it over. ‘Mum’ (Hattie Morahan) has a theatrical presence through photos, projected on the walls, and a tape-recording of her remembering Dad’s excitement at meeting Ted Hughes at a lecture, which Murphy painfully plays.
Over the course of the play, Crow goes from intruder to protector and co-inhabitant. Towards the end, the boys dress up in identical wigs, suits and moustaches, and remember Crow’s presence in their childhoods now they’ve grown up, with their dad standing between them. It is a weird and intensely theatrical (and Enda Walsh-y) moment, and is followed by one of the most moving moments in the play: Dad’s memory of taking his sons to a bird of prey show. Such a jarring juxtaposition is typical of Walsh’s production of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which is not afraid of grasping difficulty by the talons.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is on till 13th April at the Barbican. More info here.