Max Porter's 2015 novella – part prose poem, partly loosely disguised memoir – is a fragmented exploration of an unconventional redemption, as two recently bereaved small boys and their father are visited in the midst of their grief by a large, vulgar and proudly priapic corvid. That bird, who announces his intention to stay for as long as this emotionally shipwrecked family needs him, may or may not be a product of the grief-addled mind of their dad – a Ted Hughes-obsessed academic who, even in the aftermath of his wife's death, is trying, and failing, to write a book about Ted Hughes' mystical relationship with Shakespeare.
Disciples of Hughes will know Crow, from Hughes' 1970 poem sequence, as a saboteur and a disrupter – an embodiment of amoral, bathetic savagery. In Porter's reimagining, he becomes a perverse force of salvation. Thicketed with beautifully gnarly, elliptical prose, you'd have never bet on this fictionalised anti-misery memoir capturing the heart of hundreds of thousands, and yet, magnificently, it did.
And so to the stage version, adapted and directed by Enda Walsh and starring, in a virtually solo performance, comes the extravagantly talented Cillian Murphy in a very rare visit to the London stage. As an artistic endeavour, it too is a leap of faith. With its blurred boundaries between internal, imagined and domestic worlds, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers isn't an obvious piece of writing to dramatise. Where Porter triumphs, however, Walsh stumbles.
Murphy, hunched in a black dressing gown like a vagrant storyteller, plays both dad and Crow. As dad, he helplessly opens empty kitchen cupboards and talks about his wife. As Crow, he uses a voice manipulator to transform his voice into something laughably schlock horror, yelps and leaps around the stage, demonic, possessed, sometimes screaming into a microphone, at others trying to shag his own desk. As dad he is man made pitifully small. As Crow, he personifies the mad, epic disorder of grief.
For all the compulsive ferocity of Murphy's performance, what is made precise and accessible on the page feels dense and impenetrable on the stage. Porter's novella is partly about the capsizing tidal wave of grief, but Walsh goes overboard on the tidal wave, assaulting the back wall – and the audience – with a battery of projected visuals and scribbled drawings and cacophonous, distorted sound. The result feels like a prog-rock wig-out with rudimentary visual theatre techniques tacked on. Worse, it seems to go on forever.
Porter's original was both a self-reflexive commentary on conventional grief narratives and, to my mind, as much, if not more, about the boys' experience of loss as it was their father's. Walsh maintains a strong sense of the former and allows Crow's subversive detachment full rein. Everything about this flat screams “dead mum,” observes Crow, dispassionately. “Motherless children are pure crow!” Yet he badly squanders the latter. The boys, who inexplicably sometimes have their voices amplified and sometimes don't, are often rendered passive observers, arguing over the TV or slumped bored at the kitchen table. I could sympathise. The more this show tries to stir my senses, the more it made me feel sleepy. At one point they watch corny video footage of their mum on a beach, at another trying to grasp projected images of famous women from the 1980s as though they are in some way incarnations of their dead mother. In both moments, the slippery manifestations of memory – so subtly handled in the book – are made clumsily explicit.
Only in the last 15 minutes, after Crow has thankfully departed, and the two boys and their dad speak frankly and gently about their loss, does the show do what it ought to have done from the start, and make your eyes start to prickle. Most of the time, though, it offers a perverse advertisement for the quiet consolations of poetry, the precious space it offers to contemplate language and feeling, and which this show badly lacks.