theater review

Theater Review: The Volcano at the Center of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

From Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, at St. Ann’s. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Near the end of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, director and playwright Enda Walsh’s adaptation of Max Porter’s collagelike 2015 novel, Cillian Murphy takes off the T-shirt he’s been wearing and drops it on the floor. It lands with the slap of a wet sponge. Murphy — the marvelous Irish actor whose half-angelic–half-cadaverous face, long-dark-tunnel eyes, and gift for hopping from contemplation to combustion land him in the exciting valley between hero and villain — has been, theatrically speaking, flat-out sprinting for the last 80 minutes. You can practically see the steam rising off him. He’s playing “Dad,” a father of two young boys living in a London flat, who’s recently lost his wife in a horribly trivial home accident. Dad is a loving, externally mild, internally acerbic, somewhat perplexed guy by nature, a poetry scholar specializing in Ted Hughes. His wife’s death has catapulted him past all descriptors. Shattered, turned inside out, blindsided, uprooted, annihilated, “hung-empty” — they’re all just words. Grief, he tells us, feels “fourth-dimensional, abstract.” “I miss her so much, it’s a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds, and more. The whole city is my missing her.”

Murphy’s volcanic performance anchors Grief, which takes the tone and structure of its source material so much to heart that it can sometimes feel writerly and more than effectively fragmentary. Eisenstein wrote about the power of a “montage of attractions” over an audience, the psychic jolts we receive from contrast rather than continuity, and at times, especially in its second half, Walsh’s play moves into that transcendent space where montage also becomes irresistible motion. At other times, it revels in its own murky, meaty language so much that, even as you admire Murphy’s Olympian skill and endurance, you can feel a little static and removed, like you’re treading water in a sea of heady literary reference.

But they make sense, these tornadoes of words erratically touching down, even when they don’t quite lift us: Dad’s life is poetry—images and allusions and line breaks — and so in the wake of his loss, that’s what his world becomes. Although the title borrows from (and seems, just like an academic, to argue with) Emily Dickinson, Hughes’s big inky fingerprints are everywhere. It’s from his Crow poems — written in the late ’60s after Sylvia Plath’s suicide — that Porter draws the lurking, leering trickster who enters the story of Dad and his boys and, not without some violent mischief, re-injects them with life. The virtuosic kicker of Murphy’s performance is that he also plays this chaotic demigod, Crow himself. Does a human-size bird, reeking of “decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast,” really arrive at Dad’s door one night, take him under one massive, oil-black wing, and promise, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore”? Or is Crow born out of Dad, a savage but life-giving psychosis that’s crawled out of the abandoned pages of the book he’s been trying to write on Hughes? It doesn’t matter: He’s here. Like some kind of feathered, feral mash-up of Poe’s Raven, Mary Poppins, and — at least where his booming, plummy growl is concerned — Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, Crow makes his nest in the little London flat and sets about disrupting the dismal stasis of mourning. According to Dad, the academic, Crow is “ancient and postmodern,” an “illustrator, editor, vandal” — he dissolves boundaries, turning the spaces he inhabits into “a scrapbook, a collage, a graphic
novel …”

At times, as Will Duke’s potent, language-rich projection design is scrawled across the wide walls of Jamie Vartan’s spare, persuasively grubby set, the production does indeed feel like a graphic novel come to life, its content being written in the moment and then violently scrubbed away and rewritten again. Though there are some dropped balls here (the amount of time it takes to watch the words “Part One: A Lick of Night in the Morning” scrawl themselves across the back wall at the top of the play is almost ridiculously miscalculated, deflating all frisson of suspense), the design is muscular and gorgeous. It makes the walls of the space feel like a shifting, palpitating epidermis. And Helen Atkinson’s sound design is a bone-crunching, nerve-tingling wonder. It makes the whole space breathe, and it gives Murphy the brilliant assist that he needs to create Crow.

For Crow is no feat of super-high-tech illusionistic wizardry. He’s the product of a couple of voice-altering microphones, a black bathrobe with the hood up, and a phenomenal, inexhaustible actor. Given cosmic dimension by Atkinson, Crow’s rumbling, slyly erudite bass cascades out of Murphy as if he’s some kind of giant, demonic schoolmaster. Murphy crooks his elbows, sinks into his haunches, and stretches his mouth into a distorted, all-the-better-to-eat-you-with grin. As he leaps on tables, skitters across the space, and wreaks havoc with Dad’s papers, all the while holding forth with a kind of sinister, instructive glee — he’s here to teach, and mythical trickster gods love the sound of their own voices — it’s easy to forget that Murphy is giving almost all of his performance as Crow without his eyes. The bathrobe hood covers them up. All we get is mouth and limbs and that voice: Crow himself is a kind of physical collage, an actor playing marionette with himself to thrilling effect.

Still, for all Crow’s expansive showmanship, Grief wouldn’t work without its returns to quiet, to the hard, hesitant lull of Dad and the boys’ daily life. Some of the show’s best moments are its smaller ones, as when Dad sits in front of an old tape deck, listening to the voice of his wife telling the boys a story about the time he went up to Oxford to meet Ted Hughes, a nervous, lost young fanboy on a mission. (Hattie Morahan voices “Mum” and gives her wit and warmth even as a bodiless presence.) There’s also a wonderful moment near the play’s end when Dad goes to check on the kids (Taighen O’Callaghan and Adam Pemberton on the night I saw the show) and discovers them, somehow, grown up — dressed in oversize suits and sporting mustaches, nonchalantly discussing this and that over pints of lager. It’s very funny and — through the filter of Murphy’s awed, half-smiling gaze — quietly, intensely sad. We miss so much. Our missing is a whole city.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through May 12.

Theater: The Volcanic Grief Is the Thing With Feathers