Grief is the Thing with Feathers
If Walls Could Talk
That’s the thing with walls, they don’t simply keep everything out, they keep everything inside trapped within too. Things you want desperately to forget, yet never want to let go. For some, walls contain traces of the people who lived and died within their confines, whose voices, they believe, can still be heard if you listen closely enough. In Enda Walsh’s superb adaptation of Max Porter’s heart-rending novella, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers,” walls not only talk, they scream, curse, howl, and rage against the dying of a tender light. And what they have to say is frightening, exhilarating, powerful, and irresistible. Indeed, if walls could talk they’d say do not miss “Grief is the Thing with Feathers,” for it is, without question, one the theatrical events of the year.
As in Porter’s award winning novella, Dad and Boys, dwarfed within their high walled London flat, nest together with a near palpable grief. The passing of the Boy’s Mum, who was also Dad’s wife, has shrunk their world to this small haunted hovel, yet expanded their universe into a huge, overwhelming black hole. Dad, a Ted Hughes scholar trying to complete a book on the poet, oscillates between a life of organised chaos, trying hard not to abdicate his parental and authorial responsibilities, and an overpowering and crippling grief. Until one dark night Crow comes calling to Dad’s caged prison, where the walls are alive, crawling with memories, words, images, and scratchings. Insurmountable walls Dad climbs everyday as Crow urges him to see what he refuses to look at, to say what he dares not even recall. Meanwhile, the ever-resilient Boys fend more and more for themselves, physically as well as emotionally, as Dad appears to get worse on the road to hopefully getting better. As days and nights pass the slow pace of healing might look like a gradual deterioration, but there might yet be hope for all three to move on, accepting absence as a permanent part of their presence.
Remaining faithful to Porter’s original text, writer and director Enda Walsh still exerts his own considerable presence, with strong and subtle flourishes translating Porter’s textual energy into a formidable theatrical energy for the stage. Some distinctions might appear almost unnoticeable, yet prove to be incredibly potent. If Porter’s novella is built firmly around an interplay of three distinct voices, Walsh expands upon this triptych by giving Mum a distinct visual presence and voice of her own. One, which, in telling the story of Dad’s visit to Oxford to meet his hero, Ted Hughes, opens the poignancy and immediacy felt on the page and releases it onstage. A soundtrack of Whitesnake, Swing Out Sister, and Vanessa Paradis accentuate a specific sense of location in time, reinforcing a 1980’s, pre laptop and mobile phone world of TV’s, radios, and typewriters. Another simple yet effective choice, offering subtle indicators and key markers of moments and themes, as well as reinforcing an overwhelming sense of being trapped within a time past.
A hugely complex production, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” delivers a master class in theatrical excellence, showing near flawless levels of precision, execution, and split second timing. Set designer, Jamie Vartan juxtaposes a vast cold expanse, created from sheer size and scale, with small pockets of warmer family spaces, capturing both the cramped confines, and overwhelming void, both Boys and Dad inhabit without ever sacrificing immediacy and intimacy. Projection designer, Will Duke, invests the insurmountable, towering walls with living presences of pain, madness, and memory, as well as a superb series of crow images by Vartan, evoking Leonard Baskin’s drawings for Ted Hughes’s original Crow collection. Helen Atkinson’s sound design inhabits every place on the audio spectrum, from the faintest doorbell in an unseen hallway, to doom laden weather forecasts on the radio serving as a tentative link to the outside world, right through to Crow’s roaring, resonant voice raging and railing in its stupendous poetic prose. Teho Teardo’s wonderful composition, along with clever musical interludes, including a delightful head nod towards Francis Lai’s 1970’s score for the film Love Story, echoing the central theme of a love lost, deeply enriches the audial experience. Adam Silverman’s superb lighting design crafts a world of haunting spotlights and abstract shadows set against the solidness of the ordinary everyday, another theme which figures heavily throughout “Grief is the Thing With Feathers.” If, individually, each design component is extraordinary, collectively they coalesce into something sublime.
Just as Porter’s novella plays with the limits of storytelling, Walsh’s direction toys with the boundaries of the theatrically possible, conducting the intricate score of design and performance with the finesse and rigour of a Maestro. Shifting seamlessly between extremes, Walsh crafts moments of verbal, physical, and theatrical abstraction, juxtaposed with others of real world immediacy and simple and direct address. Visually, Walsh ensures thematic layers, so densely interwoven, are given full expression in a production that, even when calm, has a quiet violence lurking underneath. In the end you may not understand all you see and hear, but Walsh ensures you experience it to the full, and through that experience come to better understand.
An experience Walsh’s comrade in arms, Cillian Murphy, makes palpable and visceral with a breathtaking performance. What Porter’s novella contains, Murphy unleashes in a wild, exhilarating tour-de-force. Breaking the fourth wall one moment, climbing the other three walls the next, Murphy delivers an extraordinary performance of physical and emotional depth. Raging forth with the force of a tidal wave, receding back onto himself with the delicacy of soft lapping waves, Murphy’s Dad caws, cries, crouches, and pounces with unrelenting honesty. Even the most glowing and superlative praise for Murphy’s performance feels like understatement. David Evans, Taighen O’Callaghan, and Felix Warren playing Boys on alternating nights, along with the absent yet present Hattie Morahan as Mum, round out a superb night of theatre.
Like James O’Barr’s 1989 comic series, The Crow, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” offers a contemporary take on the crow as an agent of death, resurrection, and redemption. Like Porter’s original novella, Walsh’s stage adaptation of “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” owes as much to Emily Dickinson’s original declaration that ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ as with Porter’s reimagining of the phrase. For next to its underlying violence lies a heart in pain. One broken no doubt, but a heart still beating. With “Grief is the Thing with Feathers,” Walsh has taken the award winning, debut novella of 2015 and turned it into one of the theatrical events of 2018. It doesn’t get much better than this.
“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter, adapted and directed by Enda Walsh, produced by Complicité and Wayward Productions in association with Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, runs at The Black Box Theatre, Galway, until March 24th, transferring to the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, from March 28th till April 7th
“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” is co-produced with the Barbican, London, Cork Opera House, Edinburgh International Festival, Oxford Playhouse, St. Ann’s Warehouse and Warwick Arts Centre.