Tag Archives: enda walsh

Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Barbican)

Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Mark Douet.
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Tim Walker.

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.”

Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.

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.

Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.

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.

Hattie Morahan in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Hattie Morahan in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.

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.

Taighen O'Callaghan, David Evans and Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers.  Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Taighen O’Callaghan, David Evans and Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.

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.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.

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.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Photo credit Colm Hogan.
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Review: Ballyturk (National Theatre)

There has been decidedly mixed press about this new play by Enda Walsh, which has come to England following runs in Dublin and Cork.   Hard to catagorise in any particular box, this can be classed as anything from black comedy to theatre of the absurd, to a frenetic physical showcase capped by a philosophical close, to ‘filling a room with words’.

Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.
Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.

A cast of three bring this play to the stage, under Walsh’s direction, and clearly every scene is closely choreographed, whether to the pulsing beats of ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ or the smooth dialogue of the game of ‘Ballyturk’, where two men only called ‘1’ and ‘2’ create a day in the life of a town which only appears to exist in their head, from the local bully boy to the snipey lady shopkeeper (“I’ll not be out-bittered by a lemon”).  Despite the Daily Mail asserting these two are brothers, there is no evidence to say whether they are brothers, strangers, father and son, or lovers.  The conjecture is purely that of an audience who can make what they like of this set up.

Cillian Murphy plays ‘1’, and those who have seen him in both ‘Peaky Blinders’ on television, and in the films he has been part of (androgynously beautiful in ‘Breakfast at Pluto’, strangely vulnerable in ‘Disco Pigs’ – also directed by Walsh, tough in ‘Perrier’s Bounty’) know they show his range, which is built on here.  He’s a livewire of activity, whether bounding up on to the curiously placed wooden furniture, working himself up into epileptic fits, or simply getting on with the minutae of life with a force which leaves him drenched in sweat for most of the production.  He’s wickedly funny, too, and towards the end, quite heartbreaking, when he gets a chance to break from the repetitive existence he has shared with ‘2’ (dancing and drawing).

Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.
Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.

Mikel Murfi plays ‘2’.  He’s not an actor I was familiar with, but on looking him up he was born as Michael Murphy, and rebranded himself early on, having made many stage appearances, a lot of collaboration with Walsh, and the occasional film (‘The Commitments’, ‘The Butcher Boy’).  He is also a physical dynamo, and with quirky looks contained in an elastic face, he can switch from one emotion to another in a second, well showcased as he changes from one ‘Ballyturk’ character to another in a moment.

Into this bizarre existence, where the occasional disembodied voice comes through the walls, and ‘1’ and ‘2’ are – what – trapped? imprisoned? cocooned? – comes a louche visitor, known only as ‘3’, with cigarette in hand and, in a long existential monologue, a taste of what is available outdoors, from the disappointment of life to the things we all take for granted (sun, clouds, trees).

Stephen Rea in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.
Stephen Rea in Ballyturk. Photo credit Patrick Redmond.

He is a challenge to the other two, and whether demanding tea and biscuits (which leads to an amusing biscuit jenga game, done in such a laid-back way it is almost imperceptible), singing an old classic, ‘Time After Time’ (with a microphone that appears from up high, for no reason) or quietly staring out ‘1’, he is a dynamic force coming into the partnership we have witnessed so far.

‘3’ is played by Stephen Rea, and his character is so quiet and nonchalant he exudes real danger and an unsettling vibe to the piece.  I hadn’t seen him on stage before but have been long familiar with his film work, and he hasn’t lost any of that power he’s brought to the screen in the past.

The ending, to me, was one open to interpretation, of what is beyond the wall which had parted to allow ‘3’ to join the party.  If ‘1’ and ‘2’ had always been able to leave, why hadn’t they?  If they were always destined to be trapped, why was the opportunity presented now, and what would it lead to?  Was the ‘death’ that ‘3’ spoke of really a reintroduction back into the real life, and the inevitable mortality that involved?  And just who was ‘3’, anyway?

As we left the National another audience member had clearly endured enough during the 90 minutes, dismissing this play as “a load of bloody rubbish!”.  The audience reaction generally was mixed, I thought, some enthuastically applauding, others muted and quiet.  I found ‘Ballyturk’ interesting, infuriating, funny, charming, and touching,  I might be biased as a fan of both Rea and Murphy, but they don’t disappoint, and this play is a challenge for sure, but a worthwhile one.


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