Is The Thing With Feathers
Barbican Theatre Spring 2019
Enda Walsh's adaptation of
Max Porter's novel (the title a deliberate misquoting of Emily Dickenson)
is a theatrical poem built on images created through language, sound and
visual effects more than on linear narrative or logic.
It has moments of intense
power and beauty. But this mode is difficult to sustain through an
uninterrupted eighty-five minutes, and there are inevitably dead stretches
between the high points.
One person's high point may
be another's low, but for everyone it is likely to be a heavy slog with
only intermittent rewards.
A man and his two young sons
whose wife/mother died unexpectedly are just beginning their journey of
grief when a supernatural talking crow invades their home, announcing that
he is there to help.
Rather than offering comfort
and sympathy, though, the crow challenges and disrupts, telling harsh
fables, forcing painful memories on them and interrupting any peace.
He is not there to soften the
hard edges of grief but to exercise and strengthen the grieving so they
have the power to live through their pain and come out the other side. And
when they do – when it is clear that they have survived the worst – he
The text repeatedly mentions
Ted Hughes, and Porter's language evokes that poet's harsh imagery and
unflinching acknowledgement of the painful elements in life. (You might
also hear echoes of James Joyce in the nonlinear stream-of-consciousness
of the grammar.)
This same boldness is
reflected in Enda Walsh's direction and the contributions of designer
Jamie Vartan, sound designer Helen Atkinson, lighting designer Adam
Silverman and projection designer Will Duke – all creating theatrical
effects that are startling, hard-edged and anti-sentimental.
Cillian Murphy plays both the
grieving man and the crow, switching between natural underplaying and
stylised semi-balletic movement, and between his natural voice and accent
and – with the aid of amplification and echo effects – something
unworldly. Apart from being an impressive acting exercise, the device
evocatively hints at an internal psychological identity for the bird.
This is not theatre for those wanting easy entertainment. It's a hard-going evening with flashes of brilliance, and that may be enough.
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Review - Grief Is The Thing With Feathers - Barbican Theatre 2019