Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 16 June 2019

Grief - an exquisite lesson in survival

  • Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, O’Reilly Hall, Dublin
  • The Rape of  Lucrece, Gate Theatre, Dublin
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers at O'Reilly Hall
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers at O'Reilly Hall
Camille O'Sullivan in The Rape of Lucrece at the Gate

Emer O'Kelly

Our reviewer sees a play that paints sorrow as a saviour.

It begins with an ominous promise: we see dark birds as things of prey, circling to await the chance of destruction. And when the metaphysical Crow knocks on the door behind which shelter a grieving father and his two small sons, there is no welcome. Because Crow has come to wrap his wings around them, initially to the exclusion of all else. And his initial promise is that he will not leave until he is no longer needed.

Max Porter's 2015 novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers seems (and proves to be) tailor-made for Enda Walsh's almost dystopian revelry in playwriting.

Caught halfway between dream and nightmare, Walsh thrusts the young father into a lost world where he ultimately acknowledges that, had he known what was to come, he would have begged to be taken instead: not just to avoid the grief, but because of the overwhelming practicalities of being a father alone, with all its concomitant necessary unselfishness. He wants to be overwhelmed by the lost love, the aloneness of a house and a world that does not contain her.

Walsh's concept forces a tide of rage on the audience, with passages and sentiments from the protagonist's half-finished study of the poet Ted Hughes (his obsession), as well as the sensations of his mentor/alter ego, Crow, scratched in giant lettering in video form in Jamie Vartan's extraordinary grief-pounding set, and highlighted by Teho Teardo's magically dissonant music score. It's an overwhelming assault on the senses, recognisable to anyone who has experienced seemingly unbearable grief, and forcing those who have not to contemplate its fearful depths.

And whereas the novel gives Crow and his protege separate "sections", Walsh has blended them into a duality in the incomparable form of Cillian Murphy, using a speech distorter for Crow's lines, and travelling through a journey of acceptance that is not so much weary as wistful and resigned: "Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people," he reflects when he has given Crow permission to leave, "because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project." And it can protect against worse predators.

By then, he has completed his Hughes book, and seen his boys grown up and happy. And he carries with him the video of his dead wife (Hattie Morahan) as she tells their growing boys of his young obsession and his only, blush-inducing, encounter with his idol. Far from being a dark presence, Crow has been a wise old bird.

While acknowledging the extraordinary achievement of this debut novel, equally, Enda Walsh gets better and better: more deeply reflective and compassionately aware as time goes on.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a multi co-production between Complicite and Wayward in the UK, and Landmark and the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland. In Dublin, it's at the O'Reilly Hall in Belvedere College, directed by the author.


She enters barefoot, wearing a military-style black overcoat. She carries a pair of combat boots which she places carefully to one side.

This is the silent testimony of a proud military wife, prepared if necessary to follow the drum.

And it makes all the more poignant her later howl of anguish that her husband "should have been there" when she is raped in his absence by the lustful, depraved son of her king Tarquin.

The rape of Lucretia, wife of the general Collatine of the Roman army, after he had rhapsodised to his fellow officer Tarquin of his wife's beauty and chastity, heralded the bloody coup that ended the Roman Empire.

But it was the private blood- letting of Lucretia's soul and her husband's equally devastated reaction on her behalf that was to concern Shakespeare when, at the age of 28, he wrote his epic poem The Rape of Lucrece. It is "domesticated" in its scale, despite the epic underscore, and is extraordinarily modern in its interpretation of the urge to sexual violence. Tarquin, travelling in idle curiosity from camp to Collatine's home because he refuses to believe his friend's boasts, has his lust roused as much by the young wife's virtue as her beauty, and determines to violate it.

Ultimately, Lucrece manages to ensure her husband knows the name of her violator, and then kills herself. Demented with sorrow, Collatine determines to do the same, only to be persuaded by Brutus to live and find revenge. And the war they wage sees the end of the Tarquin dynasty.

In the adaptation for stage/song by Camille O'Sullivan, Feargal Murray and Elizabeth Freestone in a new production at the Gate, O'Sullivan relates the horror of the saga in 12 cabaret songs linked by a savagely lyrical recitation of the verse. And if it opens with almost too much emotional restraint (which in any case is preferable to superficial and overplayed "boiler bursting") it builds to internalised rage of bewildered, disbelieving pain as, stripped to a cotton shift, she writhes on the floor against her tormentor, conjuring up for anyone with any imagination the huge figure of the breast-plated soldier, filthy from the trail, crushing her beneath his power and weight.

With her long-time collaborator Feargal Murray at the piano, and directed by Freestone in a subtly suggested design lit by Claire Gerrens with sound by Claire Windsor, this is cabaret as tragic drama at its best.

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