Review: Grief is The Thing With Feathers at Barbican

PUBLISHED: 12:55 01 April 2019

Cilian Murphy in Grief is The Thing With Feathers. Picture: Colm Hogan.

Cilian Murphy in Grief is The Thing With Feathers. Picture: Colm Hogan.


Cillian Murphy gives a soul-touching performance as a grieving dad haunted by the avian embodiment of his loss.

Picture: Colm Hogan.Picture: Colm Hogan.

The long-time collaboration between playwright/director Enda Wash and actor Cillian Murphy (widely known for his starring role in TV’s Peaky Blinders) has generated memorable work exploring trauma and existential crisis.

Now, for Wayward Productions in association with Complicite, Walsh stages Max Porter’s poetic novel in which a giant crow visits the London flat of a bereaved father and his two young sons.

Dad, a romantically scruffy scholar is writing a book about Ted Hughes’ Crow, while struggling to maintain domestic routines, desperate to protect his boys from the pain following their mum’s sudden death.

He confides to the audience how friends smother him with kindness and food but fail to understand that for him ‘grief felt four-dimensional.’

Picture: Colm Hogan.Picture: Colm Hogan.

Porter’s challenging novel weaves together three points of view: Dad, Boys and Crow – and Walsh’s adaptation faithfully honours the stream-of-consciousness style. Projections convey the visceral and spiritual elements: letters cascade down a wall signaling the failure of language to truly express grief; scratchy scrawls flag up chapter headings that are willfully abstruse – “in defense of the nest, permission to leave.”

Played out on Jamie Vartan’s sparse set with only a scattering of furniture, the lines between fantasy and reality are ever shifting and the threshold between civilized society and wild nature is blurred.

As a metaphor for Dad’s grief, Crow is beguiling and revolting; sexually voracious, he humps Dad’s desk while reeking of decay. As Dad’s grief alters, Crow morphs into an unlikely babysitter (his folk tales are irritatingly abstract) as well as a therapist, burbling platitudes. To conjure Crow, Murphy pulls up his hood, shrouding his eyes, and his voice booms out like a fairy tale ogre. Helen Atkinson’s soundscape is a key component though some of the production’s ceaseless invention is overdone: Crow screeching into a megaphone as projections engulf the action.

But Murphy’s performance is always electrifying. Not only can he hop and skitter across the stage making a crow credibly manifest but in the quieter moments, as Dad, he touches your soul.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers is at Barbican Centre until Saturday April 13. More details here.

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