Grief is the Thing with Feathers, cannily adapted by Enda Walsh from Max Porter’s book to the stage, is a thought-provoking and moving study of the universal experience of grief and how we process it.
Porter’s text is a series of alternating monologues from a Dad mourning the loss of his wife, one of his boys, and Crow, the macabre Mary Poppins who comes to look after them in their grief. Cillian Murphy first appears as Dad, then morphs into crow with the addition of nothing more than the hood of a dressing gown and a microphone that distorts and amplifies Crow’s rhythmic musings. The mother who has passed away should almost be added to the character list, as Walsh creates a profound sense of her absence in the space.
The experience of losing a loved one is captured beautifully in this production. When someone dies, they may be gone but the artefacts of their life remain. In Walsh’s production, these take the shape of projections (by Will Duke), stories and, perhaps the most poignant one, an audio recording of Mum recounting the day that Dad met his hero, Ted Hughes. This is an incredibly touching moment as Murphy sits at a desk with the tape rolling in front of him, no one and nothing moves on stage and yet the sense of loss created is overwhelming.
Porter’s text captures tiny yet incredibly relatable truths of the process of grief. How the “orbiting grievers” bring “another lasagne”, for example. The staging, in collaboration with the innovation and brilliant Complicité, makes these truths manifest and sucks us right into mourning along with the bereaved family.
Jamie Vartan is once again the silent partner in a Murphy-Walsh collaboration as set designer. The family’s small London flat is stretched across the expansive stage of the O’Reilly Theatre, as projections of Crow’s etchings fill the gaps. Vartan’s set seamlessly facilitates jumps from quiet domestic scenes to tremendous, disturbing sermons from crow. From the adorable little bunk bed to the monstrous, projected scratchings, Vartan facilitates the vast spectrum of tonality in this play. Porter’s words and Walsh’s vision are a kindness to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. It quashes the concepts of such phrasal verbs as ‘moving on’ and ‘getting over’. The family go to the beach to scatter Mum’s ashes, but with insistence we are told that she is not gone from their lives. As the boys grow up, they remember her and treasure her at significant milestones (as if this moment wasn’t heart-warming enough, the boys are dressed in Christina Cunningham's grossly oversized suits and stick-on moustaches). We are comforted Murphy’s declaration, “Grief is a long-term project.”