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The Theatreguide.London Review

Grief 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 leaves.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Grief Is The Thing With Feathers - Barbican Theatre 2019

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