Review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers, The Barbican

It’s hard to know where to begin with Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It’s a surreal yet deceptively simple piece that almost defies explanation. It’s a tear-jerker that takes you by surprise, but this staging is just as remarkable for how it presents this quasi-mythical, modern-gothic fairytale.

This first staging of Max Porter’s book is experimental but admittedly has had some practice. Adapted by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, it first ran in Galway in 2018 before making its way to the Barbican’s underground theatre, which feels like a fitting environment for this raw tale of the early, gut-wrenching feelings of loss.

The father, played by a stripped-back and energetic Cillian Murphy, and his two sons (David Evans and Leo Hart) are trying to live after the death of their mother, after the well-wishers with “another lasagne” have fallen away. But soon they aren’t so alone. The father’s academic work on Ted Hughes spins off a new character, the Crow, who comes to live with the recently redacted family.

This Crow is embodied by Murphy’s struggling, bookishly awkward widower as Walsh has taken Porter’s text and interpreted the surreal house-guest as a psychological coping mechanism. Murphy is an adept shapeshifter to Walsh’s plan, using the hood of his dressing gown to transform into his corvid foil. And he has more than enough presence to pull it off, jumping off tables, climbing up the walls, and thrusting himself into the audience. Murphy’s Crow is a rock star – the energetic headline act with his name scratched across the back wall.

It’s a bit of a workout for the audience too. Both emotionally, and dare I venture, almost physically. I find myself leaning slightly forward, stomach muscles engaged, as I watch grief in the shape of the Crow take over Murphy’s character, his sons and the walls of this London flat. Murphy’s Crow is playful, cruel, scary, a healer and, like grief, lets you wallow, turns you on yourself, before a calm floods the scene. I am hooked.

You cannot forget that this was once a book. The book sections with spooky titles such as “A lick of night in the morning” and “Defence of the nest” are scratched onto the wall, and later some of the Crow’s poetic outbursts take over, eventually turning the whole wall black. It’s a nice gothic touch in Jamie Vartan’s set, if a little overdone in parts.

Admittedly, there is a moment when I doubt if the stage is the right place for this work. The reliance on multimedia, while fashionable, makes me wonder if film is actually the arena that would do this justice. Or maybe just a more intimate setting.

But as the mechanics of Murphy’s performance are laid bare, I realise that the human is essential to realising the emotion of this piece. A father playing an imaginary bird is a pathetic madness and one that we need to see. It’s not perfect, but it’s experimental and viscerally gripping theatre.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is playing The Barbican Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, see The Barbican website.