'Grief Is the Thing With Feathers': Theater Review

Courtesy of Colm Hogan
Cillian Murphy in 'Grief Is the Thing With Feathers'
Beaky blinders.
4/13/2019

Family tragedy meets dark folklore in the latest New York-bound collaboration between 'Peaky Blinders' star Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh.

Cillian Murphy gives a highly charged, shape-shifting performance as a newly bereaved father in Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the Peaky Blinders star's latest collaboration with Irish playwright and director Enda Walsh (Once, Ballyturk, Lazarus). Adapted from Max Porter's prize-winning experimental novel, Walsh's ambitious work is a strong opening statement from Wayward Productions, a new London-based venture founded by longtime Complicite producer Judith Dimant.

Premiered to great acclaim in Galway and Dublin last year, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers sometimes lacks cohesion as Walsh struggles to impose dramatic shape onto challenging source material. But whatever the flaws in this uneven production, Murphy's marquee pull has already helped sell out its limited London run. Next stop is St. Ann's Warehouse in New York, running April 20-May 12.

Published in 2015, Porter's novel is a heavily stylized polyphonic prose poem about an unnamed father wrestling with the devastating aftershocks of his wife's sudden death. The narrator's professional obsession with Crow, a 1970 poetry collection written by Ted Hughes in the shadow of Sylvia Plath's suicide, comes to haunt him in his fragile mental state. In Walsh's interpretation, the character of Crow takes the form of a physical alter ego, preying on the grieving widower in his London apartment, literally taking him over like a demonic possession.

Dad (Murphy) lives with two young sons, alternately played in this production by four different actors: Leo Hart, Adam Pemberton, Taighen O'Callaghan and David Evans. The boys are autobiographical surrogates for Porter in the book, who lost a parent himself at the age of 6, though in his case it was his father.

Specific personal memories are embedded in Walsh's distillation of the novel, from nuanced observations on father-son dynamics to the bursts of pop music, television and news reportage that ground the action firmly in late 1980s London. This balance of banal domestic realism with darkly surreal folklore elements makes for fertile dramatic tension in places.

Recognizing that the book's power lies primarily in its dense poetic language, Walsh makes text a key visual motif with superlative help from projection designer Will Duke. Raw chunks of dialogue, waterfalls of typewritten dissertation and vast screeds of Crow's obsessive-compulsive verbiage blaze across the apartment walls in giant kinetic typography, all punctuated by creepy cartoon images. This hallucinatory horror-movie effect is striking at first, though it soon loses its power through overuse. To summon the ghostly echo of Mum (Hattie Morahan), Walsh uses flickering video footage and even an extended audio monologue, presented here as one of Dad's precious memories on cassette — a very Beckett touch.

But the most powerful visual effect in this production is Murphy's multi-character metamorphosis. Hunched and broken in human form, he speaks in his native Irish brogue as Dad. But as Crow he instantly transforms into a swaggering lord of misrule. Adopting a pompous upper-class English accent, heavily amplified and distorted through discreet microphones, he pinballs around the set, priapically humping furniture and belching great torrents of impressionistic, free-associating wordplay. With the simple addition of a dark hooded cloak, Murphy becomes both demon and clown, mythical trickster and sinister Babadook. It's a dazzling transformation, full of comic anarchy and latent menace.

Unfortunately, not even Murphy's herculean exertions can give this disjointed multimedia production the narrative cohesion and emotional heft it lacks. Walsh's punk-rock pyrotechnics are undoubtedly impressive, but they eventually start to feel like diversions intended to shore up a scrappy, episodic, plotless sprawl. The child co-stars are also oddly underused, their dialogue mostly relegated to prerecorded playback. Some of the passages lifted from Porter's book work fine as rich Joycean wordscapes, but never quite make the leap from page to stage. At times the effect is almost like watching a radio play with superfluous added visuals.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is most affecting in its becalmed final act, when Dad and the boys emerge from their disorienting trauma and make peace with their loss. There are some sublime moments here, but mainly those when the text is at its least experimental and most conventional, which is probably not quite what Walsh intended. That said, as a dazzling technical spectacle and virtual one man show for Murphy, there are plenty of great moments in this unorthodox literary psychodrama.

Venue: Barbican Theatre, London
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Leo Hart, Adam Pemberton, Taighen O'Callaghan, David Evans, Hattie Morahan
Director-playwright: 
Enda Walsh, adapted from the novel by Max Porter
Set designer: Jamie Vartan
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting designer: Adam Silverman
Music: Teho Teardo
Sound designer: Helen Atkinson

Projection designer: Will Duke
Presented by Judith Dimant, Wayward Productions