Enda Walsh’s plays are populated with characters coping, or not coping, with grief and trauma. So it is not hard to see why Walsh was drawn to adapting Max Porter’s novel about painful loss. In Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the shock of sudden bereavement for a father and his two young children places them in a numbed state, until the intervention of a winged creature, Crow, who is something between an alter ego, a guardian angel and a therapist.
In Walsh’s staging for Complicité and Wayward Productions, the opening scene in the interior of a London flat has echoes of his own 2006 play The Walworth Farce. As the grieving Dad (Cillian Murphy) goes through the motions of domestic routines, anxious to take care of his boys (David Evans and Taighen O’Callaghan), friends smother him with kindness and food. A literary scholar, he is attempting to return to the book he is writing on Ted Hughes’ poetry when its subject, Crow, forces himself into his home.
For anyone brave enough to adapt and direct this startling novel for the stage, it is the thing with feathers itself that must be grappled with. Rather than using War Horse-style puppetry or video images for Crow, Walsh emphasises the bird’s psychological and symbolic aspect by having Murphy embody him, switching between roles with a flip of his dressing gown. With the help of Helen Atkinson’s enveloping sound design and Teho Teardo’s compositions, Crow sweeps and jousts across the expanse of Jamie Vartan’s vast set, a hooded figure from a fairytale or a silhouette from early silent movies. Although potent visually, the illusion snags when Murphy’s heavily amplified voice emerges in strangled Olivier tones, rather than something more elemental.
The book’s section headings – “in defence of the nest”, “permission to leave” – are projected in huge black scrawls across the back wall like grief-stricken graffiti. Dad’s drawings of the family pictured with crows’ heads fill the space, as words and letters thicken to form a blizzard of darkness. The effect created is of an animated graphic novel, a scrapbook with lines from Porter’s text followed by nostalgic video images of Mum (Hattie Morahan) from a home movie.
The collage effect is brilliantly achieved technically but at times seems overblown. In the ambitious attempt to find a theatrical analogue for Porter’s formal experimentation on the page, some emotional impact is lost, with the vulnerable figures of Dad and the boys swamped by the hi-tech dazzle. While Porter’s poetic text is emphasised – literally becoming the writing on the wall – something of its spirit and tone, its sheer strangeness and wild humour, remains elusive.
Yet Murphy as Dad can hold the entire stage alone: he is riveting as he tells us how he knew it was time to say goodbye to his minder, Crow. In an eloquent transposition from the book, he listens to a recording of his dead wife on a tape, as she fondly tells the story of his once-in-a-lifetime encounter with his hero, Hughes. Murphy’s face, first resisting the sound of her voice, then dissolving into tenderness and pure sorrow, brings everything back to a human scale.