Tag Archives: grief

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Barbican

Grief on stage and in popular culture is rarely considered as a psychological state of its own but as a means or driver for other behaviour. Hamlet may be devastated by the loss of his father that leads to his own existential considerations of suicide but it ultimately becomes the root of his desire for revenge. Later in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff rushes to the grave of his beloved Cathy to dig up her body, as Hamlet and Laertes once grappled with the corpse of Ophelia. Even in modern culture, our perspective on grief involves sobbing widows in black veils and, often, angry arguments at the wake – where would Soap Opera funerals be without a revelatory drama and plenty of hand wringing?

But these are all just the physical trappings of mourning, the downcast eye and sullen air that Gertrude chides Hamlet for, behaviours stemming from grief but not fundamentally representative of the internal process and experience of losing a loved one. Max Porter’s 2015 novella is different, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a manifestation of the confusion, pain and self-immolation experienced by one man on the untimely death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two Primary School-aged boys. It is a complex piece of writing in which a crow comes to care for the bereaved family, told from the perspective of the Dad, children and bird that revels in its use of language and sound.

Bringing that to the stage is no easy task but Director Enda Walsh’s production, which premiered in Ireland last year and is now playing at the Barbican, creates an innovative and challenging piece of theatre that captures the multi-layered and non-linear nature of Porter’s writing. Crucial to this is the decision to make Crow a psychological rather than a physical presence, no unsatisfactory puppetry or video design but a clear personification of grief itself in which Cillian Murphy assumes the duel role of Dad and Crow, making them ostensibly the same drowning man. In doing so, this production deepens its presentation of the experience, showing how completely subsumed Dad becomes within his own mind and while his perspective has moments of lucidity, there is a general palling of the world around him, including the existence of his own children.

There’s much here that links to David Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider which took an equally internal perspective on one man’s delusion. There the viewer re-lived recollections of the protagonist’s childhood memories, seen through his eyes, using a refracted technique to create a jumbling effect that cast doubt on the overall veracity of the narrative. With a similar idea of going into the character’s unbalanced mind, Walsh’s production uses a variety of similar techniques to create a distorting effect built around Murphy’s central performance, and utilising his skill as a physical as well as a cerebral actor.

Most notable is Will Duke’s projection that subtly charts the growing dominance of Crow in Dad’s mind, using first the concept of an old slide-show to show large-scale images of his family drawings in which Dad has reimagined his entire family with crow’s heads. As his mind succumbs further to the Crow personality, Dad physically transforms his posture, voice and manner, using a hooded dressing gown and hunched-over shape in which his arms are tucked into a pouch on his back to create pointed wings, a sinister but effective approach which looks especially ominous cast in long shadow against the expansive rear wall.

There is no doubting that this is a level of mania, one that builds as the show unfolds, the occupation of the human mind that results in increasing frenzy as the psychological effects of grief take hold. Consequently, as with Porter’s book, a lot of what is happening or said makes little sense but the overall creative effect is of a fragmented mind bucking against the ordinariness of the real man and his world, a disruptive chaos allowing him to retreat inside while everything falls around him. The central notion of an individual being pulled under is vividly created, not least in the climactic storm scene which, like a rock concert, involves Adam Silverman’s strobed lighting design ricocheting dramatically around the walls as Murphy delivers a thunderous monologue into a close-held microphone. Like the breaking of a fever, the aftermath is a return to calm and rejuvenation.

Duke’s video design is also used to underscore the play’s literary source material and Porter’s fascination with sound and poetic rhythm. In the early moments of Crow’s arrival, the words he speaks in booming voiceover are transcribed in thick black text onto the walls of Dad’s flat, they appear at interlocking angles before being obscured by thick blocks of feathery black. The effect is as though Crow is actively obscuring Dad’s mind, erasing his conscious expression by obliterating his main form of communication, through which the almost parasitical Crow takes control.

The idea of these projections as the interior of Dad’s mind is further reinforced by scenes of his dead wife, memories and videos of days out that are at first too painful to recall, and from which Dad actively turns away. But as his mind fully processes the grief, her image recurs first more strongly and then on a much larger scale, covering the wall with scenes of a windswept beach walk. United with Helen Atkinson’s sounds design in which we eventually hear Mum’s voice (played by Hattie Morahan), there is a sense of development inside Dad’s head and as he comes to terms with her loss he can once again revisit memories with a painful happiness that revives her in his mind, displacing the destructive influence of Crow with a sense of normality once more.

At the heart of all of this is a performance of some intensity by Cillian Murphy, an actor who has demonstrated considerable range across his work choices. All of the many fragments of Murphy the actor seem to distil through this performance, so we get aspects of the sinister villain who sometimes frightens his children as well as himself, the frenzied loon of comic book movies and the soulful devastation of his indie film choices. As Murphy shows, Dad is a character in some flux, trapped in his own mind, both its leader and its victim, a state which can change in a second, while the mercuriality of Murphy’s performance gives gravitas and meaning to the elaborate staging around him.

Using a small microphone as Crow, his physical energy is powerfully conveyed, scampering around the set, climbing up walls and bouncing on tables, reflecting the surge of adrenalin and vigour that can be a bodily effect of mental illness. He’s truly disturbing as the off-kilter Crow, insisting on taking-over family duties but clearly a disruptive and malevolent presence in the household. Even when you’re not sure what is really happening, Murphy radiates such a compelling power that you cannot take your eyes from him.

Murphy shares the stage with the two actors playing his sons, and here Walsh amplifies the internalisation of Dad’s grief by ensuring for a long time he barely acknowledges them. They exist as he does, but Murphy, like a sleepwalker, doesn’t register them or his responsibility for them until much later in the play. Dad/Crow gives them things to do but must also come to terms with the secondary role he has been playing in their lives until now, one that he fears he cannot manage without his wife. It isn’t until the end of the story that he is better able to reach them as a proper father, and credit to both young actors that their own performances are made to feel like Dad’s perception of them.

It is a play, like Pinter actually, that requires you to feel rather than to understand, and by unfolding the stages of grief in this unusual fashion Dad’s ultimate fragility is what comes across so strongly. Some of Murphy’s very best moments are in the lulls between manic episodes, where he cogently and with great feeling tenderly tells the audience how much he’s hurting, how much he misses the everyday objects that his wife touched, the routines of their all too brief life together and how utterly besotted he was with her every day. Here Murphy is small, quiet and broken, a man who cannot compute how significantly his life has been upturned but clearly too weak to fight the arrival of Crow and the loss of mental control that follows.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is never any easy watch nor a cosy night at the theatre. If you’ve never read Porter’s part novel, part poem and go expecting a conventional play about the trappings of grief, then Walsh’s adaptation will be heavy going, resistant as it is the conventions and logic of narrative form. Nor is it a straightforwardly emotional experience, you won’t come away sobbing for this family and, although there are moments of great pain a lot of it is impressionistic – this is really challenging stuff. Yet, real experiences of loss are far more complex than popular culture might suggest and through Murphy’s impactful performance we are given a glimpse of a man struggling with the psychological effects of grief and learning to find a way forward.

Grief is a Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13 April but currently sold out so check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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