This is the fourth collaboration between director Enda Walsh and actor Cillian Murphy, and after seeing Ballyturk a few years ago I knew this play would be a “must-see”, despite knowing little about the book it is based on, Max Porter’s debut novel of the same name.
We meet Dad and his two young sons (all are nameless) in the flat which is now somehow too big and sparsely furnished for them. Every step, every surface speaks of the loss of Mum, who has died and left them bereft. People call with sympathy, but nothing concrete, nothing useful. “They say we need time but what we need is nit cream and batteries.”
Then one day the doorbell rings and there is Crow, a monstrous, visceral, all consuming being who is terrifyingly dark, coating the stage walls with words and inky blackness. Dad and Crow become one, obsessional, the yin and the yang, the Jekyll and the Hyde, the introvert and the extrovert, the inward cry and the primal scream of grief.
Murphy plays both Dad and Crow, shape-shifting into the protective yet destructive bird by pulling up the hood of his dressing gown, tucking his elbows out and hands in to form wings, standing spread-eagled to form webbed feet. Crow’s vocals are rough, deep, primeval, utilising different microphones and voice gymnastics. He drinks from a straw in a rabbit’s head, roughly masturbates against Dad’s writing desk, rips out the bloody heart of “I miss my wife” and tosses it into the void.
Dad is consumed by thoughts of Crow. He draws him, inhales him, rages against the dying of the light. Yet for all Crow’s bombast and power, there are the small moments too – Crow becomes Dad on a tumble down the stairs, with the boys asking “Dad, are you dead?” as he lays supine on the floor; a recording of Mum recounting a pilgrimage by Dad to see his hero, Ted Hughes, in Oxford.
The boys are mostly mute, not quite sure what to say to Dad, blinded by Crow, missing Mum, staying in the routine of loss. Their TV surrogates are evoked by projections of entertainers, presenters, newsreaders and mums in adverts; home movies of Mum project in huge height over the tiny Dad and boys who remain without her.
This is mainly a one-man performance, and Murphy is staggeringly good. A fearless actor who engages completely with both the grieving Irish widower and father and the gigantic, overbearing presence of Crow. He leaps and bounds around the stage, spits and snarls, stomps and watches. A dynamic and physical performance which is as scary to watch as it must be exhausting to do, night after night.
Dad won’t find one of Mum’s hairs around again. She’ll never finish that Patricia Highsmith novel. He’ll engage with other bodies which are not like hers, on the sofa she bought, in the flat where she died. He’ll finish his critical opus on the work of Ted Hughes, bluff and huge Yorkshire poet, when not doodling or daydreaming, or trying not to wake the boys.
In one scene Dad and boys go to a bird sanctuary where crows and eagles fly while the sons eat chips from packets which fall down to them. The boys will grow, and teach their children to shout “Crow”, and feel protected by the feathers which enveloped them in the wings of sorrow and pain.
Hattie Morahan, in film and audio form, plays the memory of Mum, and four boys share the role of the two sons (David Evans and Taighen O’Callaghan, Leo Hart and Adam Pemberton). Although on the periphery, the boys are ever present, and their performances must be commended – but this is Murphy’s show, and he’s magnificent.
Do not miss this – you’ll shudder, you might have to duck projectile props if you’re near the front, and you will most definitely have a tear in your eye when Dad and his sons walk away, hand in hand.