There is no road map for mourning. Grief gets us all in the end and, when it does, it comes without guidance notes or instructions. Each grieving process takes its own time, each finds its own form. Few writers have caught that as well as Max Porter, whose debut novel “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh and heading to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn after its current Barbican Centre run, revolves around the notion that loss defies language — even as it pins a widower’s grief to the page. Onstage, however, it slips out of shape, its subtleties drowned out by a bravura turn by star Cillian Murphy.
Even the title is fuzzy. Porter’s text, stretched out in fragments over the page, follows a father in a fugue state after his wife’s sudden death. A literature scholar with two young sons, he’s visited by a figure from the collection Ted Hughes wrote in the wake of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Crow: a huge black bird who drops feathers on the family’s pillows as they sleep. An embodiment of the man’s grief, Crow is a shadowy, slippery, almost a shapeshifting thing — at once nightmare and protector, monster and mate. Porter lists its mutations: “excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, specter, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” Grief haunts and comforts us, cradles us and hollows us out.
If Porter’s writing collapses the line between fantasy and reality, the stage can reinstate it. Here, Walsh’s longtime collaborator Murphy doubles up as both the bereaved man and the bird, making it clear that Crow is somehow inseparable from him: a manifestation of his mental state. In a whirlwind performance, he swings from the ordinary to the otherwordly — sometimes a middle-aged man on autopilot, sometimes a dark spirit on the rampage.
As the grieving father, Murphy’s flatly unremarkable: a bushy mustache softens the sharpness of his cheekbones, rustic brown clothes mute his crystal blue eyes. Swaddled up in a double duvet, wrapped in a black dressing gown, he shuffles across the stage and around Jamie Vartam’s exploded house, drifting from bedroom to kitchen to toss two kids’ breakfasts together beneath the radio’s blather. No one’s home and, when he turns to let us in on his grief in long, languid monologues, his empty, tired eyes seem to plead with us for relief. He seems a shell of himself.
Yet as Crow he takes flight: a rustling, febrile, intense presence darting round the house like a whirling dervish. Concealing his eyes beneath a black hood, sticking his arms, elbows out, behind his back, he sprints restlessly this way and that, booming out words in a deep, patrician voice amplified by a body mic. He looks and sounds like a Sith Lord: half sage, half nemesis. There is something shamanic about Crow, something of an all-consuming chaos. As Will Duke’s projections scratch words all over the white walls, he seems to usher the house, if not the whole word, into darkness.
Walsh is, on one level, the ideal adaptor. His own plays sit in similar swamps of stasis, with characters becalmed or stuck on repeat, endlessly raking over and reliving the past, unable to move on. One, “The Walworth Farce,” almost directly overlaps: its grief-stricken father forces his two adult sons through a ritual re-enactment of the day their mother died. Both families are disheveled, both share the same black hole. Motherhood has gone missing and, without it, an all-male house unravels and all but falls apart. Around Murphy, two young boys tear up the stage, scribbling all over the walls, spreading toys, clothes and leaves all over the floor. It is as if the family turns feral.
Yet, while sections of Porter’s book are set out like a script, it nonetheless sits uncomfortably on the stage. What is shapeshifting on the page — grief refusing to be contained by prose, play or poem — finds its fragmentary form flattened out on the stage. Something deeply introspective and intensely personal is opened out and made public.
Spoken aloud, Porter’s exacting language — his attempt to translate grief into text — loses its precision and its concentration and, instead, Walsh bombards and overloads us with words. In making the confusion felt, it mostly confuses, and instead it wrings the most emotion when at its simplest. “I miss her so much,” Murphy opens up and, in amidst the maelstrom, such straightforward statements of feeling let air into the room and give the story space to breath. Time and again, those moments catch you off guard: a sentence scribbled out, “I miss my wife;” the shock of her voice on a crackling cassette; an arm reaching around each of his small sons. Too often, the rest is merely noise.