With its scabrous poetic prose style and acute observation of bereavement, Max Porter’s 2015 debut novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers made an indelible mark on the literary world. Adapting it for the stage proved an irresistible dramatic opportunity to the long-established collaborative partnership of writer/director Enda Walsh and actor Cillian Murphy.
Along with the devastating loss of his wife in a domestic accident, Murphy’s Dad has to handle the wordless sadness swamping his two young sons, well-intentioned visits and acts of kindness from family and friends, and his publisher impatiently awaiting delivery of a manuscript about the poet Ted Hughes. It’s too much for one man to bear. Out of this emotional maelstrom comes the unexpected invasion of the thing with feathers which gave Hughes’s finest collection its stark, monosyllabic title.
Walsh’s adaptation is faithful to Porter’s original text and is at its most affecting when Murphy and his sweet-faced boys – two finely judged performances by Felix Warren and David Evans – are alone and disconnected in their chaotic flat.
Unkempt and gaunt, Murphy is simply 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 these motherless children to sort out their own daily routines and jumbled emotions, which they do with admirable purpose.
Building on Porter’s surreal vision, Walsh suggests that at such times reconciliation can only come from within, presenting the 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 both from the rain and a swirling torrent of feathers which echo the deluge of words sprinting around the flat’s interior walls.
He adopts a nimble, spindly stance like a character from an Arthur Rackham illustration, morphing into birdness in the blink of a beady eye, inhabiting the mythological presence that is Crow. Part scavenger, part grief counsellor, the creature moves in, declaring his intention to stay only for as long as he is needed. But will their need for him ever end?
The overall emotional impact of the piece is somewhat diminished by Crow’s plummy, weirdly distorted basso profondo delivery. There is, too, a risk of sensory overkill in the combination of Teho Teardo’s thunderous score, Jamie Vartan’s graffiti-inspired visuals, Adam Silverman’s hectic lighting and Helen Atkinson’s scratchy soundscape, though one cannot deny their collective brilliance.
The deployment of tiny details partially corrects the imbalance, be it the younger boy silently clutching his teddy, the older brother wearing his mother’s sandals, or Murphy’s anguished face on listening to her affectionate recorded account of his single, inconsequential encounter with Hughes.