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Grief is the Thing With Feathers

Review - Grief is the Thing with Feathers starring Cillian Murphy at the Barbican

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Reviewing Max Porter's breakthrough debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers on its original publication in 2015, literary critic Adam Mars-Jones took over 6,000 words in the London Review of Books to unpack what his opening sentence describes as a "compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, [that] cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable."

I won't detain you as long to (attempt to) describe the new stage version, adapted and directed by Enda Walsh that has come to London after premiering in Galway and Dublin last year. The debut production of a new producing company Wayward Productions, founded by long-time Complicite producer Judith Dimant, it's a show for the festivals and international circuit, full of blazing theatrical effects - but also blazing defects, too. One sequence, in particular, is both: a prolonged visual assault of flashing lights that had me covering my eyes to avoid it.

The only question here is whether it works on the stage as opposed to the page, as it makes three-dimensional the book's central literary device of a crow that visits a grieving family who've lost their mother and promises, "I won't leave until you don't need me any more." Both the widowed father and the crow are embodied by Cillian Murphy, who with a swish of a black, cassock-like cape switches characters.

In what is virtually a solo performance - there are two young boys who play his sons, but they only have minimal dialogue - Murphy is storyteller, protagonist and healer; it's an impressive, versatile turn.

But this strange, frequently dislocated and fragmentary multi-media meditation on grief turns out to be more weird than wonderful, alas. The heightened theatricality of it all puts the spectator at a distance from the raw grief it describes; it's only in the third of its short acts that there's finally a stripped-back simplicity to the absence of the woman that was wife and mother as we finally meet her on video home movies.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13th April. 

Originally published on

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