Stuart King

Review: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS at the Barbican Theatre

Grief is the Thing with Feathers There are plenty of things to entice theatregoers to Edna Walsh’s adaptation of Max Porter's acclaimed novel - not least the star power of Cillian Murphy and the involvement of Simon McBurney’s renowned theatre troupe Complicité.

But be warned, from the get-go, this descent into the chaos and bleak desperation of loss, is jarring, abstract and intentionally alienating towards the audience. As such, it will severely tax the resolve of many hardened theatregoers.

The sheer talent on display is unquestionable. In the power, imagination and artistry of Murphy’s portrayal of an anchorless young father, we learn how his love and sense of responsibility towards his two young sons both buoys and cruelly threatens to drown him. His portrayal is dizzying, genuinely affecting and utterly bizarre by turns.

The simple story - set in a London flat - tells of a young family who are floundering in the chasmic emptiness left by the death of the boys’ Mum, who succumbed to an unremarkable head injury.

Murphy carries the mantle of sole remaining parent like a sombre somnambulist, but significantly, (with a flip of his black dressing gown hood) he is also the embodiment of Crow, who appears initially as a caustic and frighteningly antagonistic reminder of death, but also assumes the role of powerful protector when a demon comes to feed on the family’s sadness and despondency. In this surreal manifestation he equates to a cross between the tree in A Monster Calls and a Mary Poppins figure - vowing not to leave until they need him no more.

The first hour of this Barbican spectacle is a harsh and unforgiving experience filled with bleak mundanity and abstruse weirdness. But the lulls catapult it to unexpected emotional moments of sublime beauty - for example where our protagonist plays a tape recording of his late wife recounting to her sons, the story of Dad’s first, naïve visit to Oxford to hear his literary hero Ted Hughes speak. It waxes heartbreakingly over the trivialities and draws untold nostalgia and humanity from the simplest of details.

Similarly, poetic references to people dropping-by to offer condolences and meaningless platitudes like (as he recounts): “You just need time, when what we really needed was nit shampoo and batteries” resonate pitifully. The mocking prose gives rise to unsettling phrases which puncture the auditorium throughout with banal observations like “...grief is a long term commitment”.

This extraordinarily conflicted piece is not for the faint-hearted

For those prepared to endure the unremitting onslaught of the first hour, the rewards of the last 30 minutes will reduce you to tears, but this extraordinarily conflicted piece is not for the faint-hearted.