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Grief is the Thing With Feathers

  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Photograph: Courtesy Colm Hogan

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Enda Walsh returns to St. Ann’s Warehouse with a sensorial onslaught about sorrow.

Theater review by Helen Shaw 

In Max Porter’s 2015 book Grief is the Thing With Feathers, bereavement creates a kind of narrative derangement: The work itself slides from one form (novel) into another (collection of poems) into another (a short list of reading-comprehension questions) and back. Perhaps drawn by its combination of raw tragedy and postmodern playfulness, director Enda Walsh has adapted Porter’s heartbreaking little book into a handsome if frequently self-defeating stage version. There’s so much noise and visual spectacle in this production that the words themselves—many of them beautiful—can be drowned out. When Grief is at its best, though, Walsh finds a way to fully exploit the staggering talents of his frequent collaborator, actor Cillian Murphy.

After a death, Dad (Murphy) and his Boys (played by two pairs of young actors, who alternate performances) narrate the ebb and flow of their sorrow, which takes a strange, rather magical form. When the Boys’ mother died, Dad was writing about Ted Hughes’s poetry collection Crow; now, one night, a gigantic bird actually arrives, also played by Murphy. The Crow of Porter’s text is a callous, affable, boastful, helpful figure, but Walsh’s vision for him is almost exclusively dark. Murphy plays him in a fit: He pulls his bathrobe over his eyes and scream-growls; his mouth contorts; he spits and slavers like a wolf at the kill. Projections crowd the apartment as Crow’s jabberwocky scribbles itself onto the walls with scary, serial-killer scratches. In the script, Crow is the father’s academic obsession and a personification of grief, but he’s also a kind of supernatural babysitter for the trio; in a flashforward, the Boys talk fondly about “family holidays with an imaginary crow.” As adaptor, Walsh includes that lighter language, but as a director he only seems interested in Crow as pure horror.

For long stretches, the production is also an experiment in varieties of amplification. Crow slurps and snuffles (Murphy snarls into a mic on his cheek); Crow grandstands and bellows (Murphy finds a microphone stand on a high landing); Crow booms and sulks (Murphy drags a corded mic centerstage). Sometimes Crow’s voice seems to come from the middle of the air, yards away from either actor or speakers—it’s not clear how sound designer Helen Atkinson does it, but she’s working some true ventriloquist magic. This is technically impressive but emotionally alienating; all that deafeningly processed sound seems to push us further from connection rather than gathering us close. Not until the last 15 minutes, when Dad and the Boys stare straight out at us in full light, do we connect to the darkness they’ve all been telling us about so frantically. Murphy’s particular kind of stage magnetism is an exaggerated form of total vulnerability, and only when Walsh quiets his busy production can Murphy go still—so still and pale, in fact, that he seems almost to die. Death stops for the production and touches it gently with his wing. Naturally, that’s the moment the show takes flight.

St. Ann’s Warehouse (Off Broadway). By Max Porter. Adapted and directed by Enda Walsh. With Cillian Murphy. 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through May 12.

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Written by
Helen Shaw


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