Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 18 October 2018

Pecking away at grief with purpose

Cillian Murphy in 'Grief is the Thing with Feathers' By Max Porter Adapted and Directed by Enda Walsh. Photo: Colm Hogan
Cillian Murphy in 'Grief is the Thing with Feathers' By Max Porter Adapted and Directed by Enda Walsh. Photo: Colm Hogan

Katy Hayes

Max Porter's novel about a father of two young boys mourning the loss of his wife garnered a big buzz on publication in 2015 - and now director/adaptor Enda Walsh has sculpted a brilliant illustrated monologue out of it. Walsh is making serious inroads into the form of theatre as we know it. He has a disruptive imagination that is completely at home with innovation in storytelling. Nothing he creates is like the thing before.

The premise is simple: a widowed father of two young boys is trying to cope when a crow appears at his front door and enters the household like a malign creature from a children's storybook. As in Walsh's most recent opera show, The Second Violinist, there is a substantial use of technology. Cillian Murphy who plays the dad, also plays Crow, his voice amplified when he is the bird. Jamie Vartan's expansive set with plenty of empty walls becomes like a widescreen cinema to receive image projections; the text is occasionally written or scratched across the walls. There are home videos and photos of the dead mum. Sound design by Helen Atkinson is sophisticated and inventive, with some exchanges and speeches from the kids pre-recorded and mimed on-stage and lots of audio effects. There is occasional music: some familiar like the pop song 'Joe le Taxi' and the movie-score for Love Story, but also striking original compositions by Teho Teardo.

For all its firecracker theatricality, this show is the closest approximation I can think of to the actual experience of reading a novel. It represents on stage the expansive and capricious function of the reader's imagination.

The show is dominated by a very brilliant performance from Murphy. One minute he traverses the space with little bird hops, including into the audience; the next minute he turns back into a broken widower in a bad anorak who has lost part of his core. The two young boys, played by Taighen O'Callaghan and Felix Warren on the Dublin press night, are delightful. What saves the entire enterprise from any hint of mawkish sentimentality is the complex function of Crow. He is an ambiguous bird: angry, spiteful, threatening, overwhelming. He expresses sexual frustrations. His avian presence is a true reflection of the complexity of the human response to trauma.

Literary references abound, including to Emily Dickinson's poem '"Hope" is the thing with feathers'. Ted Hughes is more directly invoked; he has a poetry collection called Crow and is also the subject of the dad's academic research.

Produced by Complicité and Wayward Productions, in association with Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, this play represents a new way of putting a novel on stage, geared at an audience that is at home with technology. It is a show that pecks at grief with a carnivorous and merciless purpose, but in a thrilling and innovative way.

Book it now...

1  NORMAL

Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin

April 9 — 28

The theatre returns to Grafton Street following its temporary sojourn in the Powerscourt Centre. Caitríona Daly’s new play, first seen at the Dublin Fringe Festival last year, deals with autism spectrum disorder.

2 THE COLLEEN BAWN

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

April 7 — 28

Premièred in 1860, this Dion Boucicault melodrama stands the test of time with frequent revivals. Based on a true-crime novel about the murder of a Kerry girl considered to be an unsuitable bride. Directed by Lisa May.

3 DEBRIS

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

April 10 — 21

British playwright Dennis Kelly is proving popular with the younger theatre companies. This 2003 work is a dark story about a brother and sister examining their dysfunctional childhood. Directed by Cathal Cleary.

Three-hander tackles modern dilemma

Review: Tryst, Project Arts Theatre, until April 14

This three-hander serves up a slice of contemporary life with a decent jolt. Matt (Finbarr Doyle) and Steph (Katie McCann) are hungover and playing a video game. They are due to be married in six days and sorting out the details of their wedding, as well as trying to calm Steph's mother who is busy interfering. Their chief bridesmaid Rachel (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) is organising place names and other logistics, but sending out passive-aggressive vibes in text messages.

Matt and Steph both have a drop of morning-after whiskey; the hair of the dog. Their life is full of late nights and their drinking is borderline out of control.

Then Rachel calls round and announces she is pregnant, as a result of a drunken threesome they had a few months prior; Matt is the father. Suddenly, Steph's mother is the least of their problems.

Written by Finbarr Doyle and Jeda de Brí, the storyline is good with a compelling narrative. The dialogue is accomplished in terms of credible realism and many flashes of wit, and there is a very funny bit of mobile-phone business.

But ultimately it all feels a bit television soap-opera. The writing is rigidly stuck in the moment, with an incidental and mundane tempo. It needs another ingredient to push deeper into the characters or create a more interesting, broader context.

Set design by Katie Foley is very effective in the neat Cube space, some simple pieces of pale furniture on a square of grey carpet; it has a spare, hungover quality. A triangular side-table makes its subtle point.

All three performances are highly realistic and convincing. But given the sheer ordinariness of the people involved, a more flamboyant or inventive approach from director De Brí may have worked better.

Davey Kelleher and Sickle Moon Productions present this most modern of dilemmas. It plays out over a fast-moving 75 minutes, and while never pitching into the sublime, is well worth a look.

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