What shape can we put on grief? This searching question, found in Max Porter’s moving novel, and now writer-director Enda Walsh’s loyal adaptation, could be asking for the indescribable. The bereaved father (played by Cillian Murphy) at its centre observes: “Grief feels four-dimensional. Abstract”.
The audacity to see that idea though is matched by the ambition of this work, a co-production by Complicité and Warward Productions, in association with Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival.
When we first meet Murphy’s character, the initial shock of his wife’s death has worn to a soft-voiced resentment. But after Crow, a dark visitor, chaotically crashes into his London flat, his burrowed anguish comes to the surface in Will Duke’s pen-scratched video projections, inscribing disturbing sentences like: “Every Surface Dead Mum”.
As a manifestation of this grieving man’s mind, Crow, played by a hooded and wicked Murphy, is intensely volatile. In quiet moments, he resembles a plummy and sentimental vaudevillian, but soon explodes in wanton, cannibalistic eruptions. Screaming through a loudspeaker, he, like grief, is overwhelming.
Walsh’s vigorous production is unafraid of incoherence, moving as if through swathes of irreducible despair. What gradually comes into focus is the heartrending picture of a household in mourning: not only a single parent struggling to manage, but also two confused boys (played in rotation by David Evans, Taighen O’Callaghan and Felix Warren) fending for themselves. While they watch different mothers on television, Jamie Vartan’s set, a dreary flat, becomes a bittersweet picture gallery.
Like Crow, who eventually transforms from a fearsome being into a supportive force, the production proves flexible, exchanging composer Teho Teardo’s loud guitars for delicate strings. In plays like Arlington and Ballyturk, Walsh translated repression into strikingly kinetic images. Here, he gleans a lot from Porter’s father figure – a Ted Hughes scholar whose neuroses lend a verbally absurdist quality. That makes the script’s abrupt leaps into other narratives feel fitting. A homemade video sees two boys kill a fish. A children’s story follows a crow searching for his father’s bones.
It’s immensely satisfying – then it all sobers up for the ending. Murphy is flawless in this electric production, especially during his later scenes, and his gentle delivery of lines about widowhood. If Porter is confronting a conception of grief as temporal and smothering, he’s more drawn to it as lasting, and possibly even a means of survival. It’s quite the revelation that something unfinished can, through it all, become beautiful.
Grief is the Thing with Feather is performed at the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin from 28 March – 7 April 2018. Click here for more details.