Leaving the Barbican Centre last Friday I was shaken, a little broken and feeling the need to meditate to regain my centre. I had just seen Enda Walsh’s adaption of Max Porter’s book: “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”. Never before have I seen the tricksy beast that is grief so accurately, uncomfortably and viscerally manifested.
The starring role was played by Cillian Murphy, thankfully my worry that my immense and long lasting crush on him would distract was unfounded; he had the sold out audience enraptured by his character before even uttering a word. In fact, his first sound had a few of us in the back row actively leaning forward. A sinister mood had been initiated from the outset with a projection of the title of Part One appearing to be scrawled, letter by letter onto the back of the set but with a loud scratching sounding as if one’s ear was between quill and parchment. The tension remained unrelenting throughout.
The play itself is about a father and his two sons attempting to cope and adjust after the sudden death of his wife and their mum. It reminded me of watching the Burton/Taylor adaption of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” recently, which left me speechless and disturbed; Walsh and Murphy left me perturbed but also understood.
My own experiences with grief had me feeling like I was going mad, as if reality had cracked. While on the surface nothing had changed, nothing felt the same, even colours changed hue. The depiction of the ‘unhinge’ the brain engineers to cope when a tear in your personal fabric occurs was so relatable I wished it wasn’t. Watching this play I felt old wounds were opened, but only to prove that healing was possible.
Murphy was frightening and lightning quick in his transformation from broken dad into the embodied crow of grief running amok his flat and his psyche – as well as his children’s. His soft Irish lilt of a lost man shuffling about in his dressing gown was immediately replaced with a harsh mechanically distorted English accent as Murphy would pull the dressing gown hood over his head and cavort across the stage as if possessed. I was enthralled, horrified, occasionally amused by the small and honest touches of humour as well as deeply moved to the mist of moist eyes.
Murphy gives his whole being to this piece for an uninterrupted and brutal 90 minutes. The switching between such distinct characters, the shift in mannerisms and the pure physicality of his performance was so impressive. Spinning, climbing, jumping, screaming and demented crying all formed part of his wild crow, which while upsetting made perfect holistic sense.
This creature was conjured by someone who understands the bitter, uncertain and animalistic nature of this aspect of human existence. Whether it be Porter’s writing, Walsh’s adaption, Murphy’s interpretation or the combination thereof, between them something magical was created. How Murphy does this every night I struggle to fathom; he’s beyond a rock star. The boys also manage to provide an innocence and naivety, cruelly touched too soon by heartbreak.
The constant discomfort eased its grip slightly in the last ten minutes where the family start to accept their new reality and eventually give the crow permission to leave. An ultimately positive acknowledgement of the process that is grieving; not something to be gotten over, but worked through until one is ready. Part of me wanted to return and see it every night purely for the quality of this production, but honestly I wouldn’t have the emotional strength to sit through it again.
The adjective ‘intense’ couldn’t possibly adequately describe what my friend who joined me and I experienced. Following the standing ovation we could only look at each other with a knowing glance of past pain brought to the surface understanding that words would fail. Uncharacteristically quiet, it took the time spent in the massively long loo queue for both of us to find some grounding.
While this play may not be to everyone’s taste, one gentleman walked out during our performance, I would encourage all to accept the challenge and go. It’s a wonder, a marvel and a moving masterpiece that has forever shifted my personal perception of human endurance. Saying goodbye to my friend at the end of the evening, his parting shot was: “Don’t have nightmares” to which I replied: “I’ll be checking my pillows for crow feathers in the morning”.