'The language leaps off the page'

Playwright Enda Walsh on adapting Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Cillian Murphy. Photo:- Tim Walker

Cillian Murphy. Photo:- Tim Walker

THERE WAS great excitement at the announcement that Enda Walsh and Cillian Murphy would be teaming up again to bring Max Porter’s remarkable book, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers to the stage, and that the production would premiere at the Black Box Theatre next March.

In Porter's book, two young boys are trying to deal with the shock and pain of their mother’s sudden death, as is their father, who is a Ted Hughes [pictured below] scholar. Then, into their lives comes Crow, the trickster protagonist of Hughes’ most famous poetry collection. This other-worldly bird is drawn to the grieving family and declares he will stay until they no longer need him. His arrival, as the most unlikely of babysitters, sets off a story that is by turns heartrending and hilarious, and full of wisdom on coping with death and living with grief.

This adaptation is a co-production by Complicité, Landmark Productions, and Galway International Arts Festival, along with a team of leading international venues. Over a Monday afternoon phone call, Enda Walsh spoke with me about putting Grief Is The Thing With Feathers on to the stage.

Walsh indeed seems the perfect choice to adapt the book; there are clear resonances between Porter’s story and his plays. The theme of grief underpinned Walsh’s recent play Arlington, while the story-telling episodes of the book echo those found in many of Walsh’s works. Given these affinities I ask was he immediately enthused about the prospect of adapting it.

“Yeah I was; it is a very good match I agree,” he replies. “I’ve known Complicité for years. Their producer, Judith Dimant, said ‘Have you read it?’ and my wife had just finished reading it and she said to me as well I should read it. Then Complicité said ‘Do you want to put it on stage?’ and I said ‘Let me read it first!’ The language in it just leaps off the page doesn’t it? It almost feels like a theatre piece already. And thematically there are those resonances, you are right. There is some sort of strange therapy that goes on when Crow arrives and teases and bullies this man through his grief. There are similarities with a lot of my plays where people need to talk their way through stuff.”

Ted Hughes

Porter’s Crow is still recognisable as the figure from Ted Hughes’s book, albeit with lively added traits and quirks. It promises to be a heck of a role for Cillian Murphy.

“Cillian is going to play the dad as well as Crow, and Max went ‘Woah!’ when I first told him,” Walsh tells me. “At times, to me, the story feels like a strange possession. What Max does so brilliantly in the piece is that the arc of it feels like we are going through some kind of terrible weather or a virus and it becomes quite abstracted but we know that the person will survive the grief, that they’ll get through it and it will balance out in some sort of way. I think Max captures exactly what my experience of grief was; there is no such thing as time. Time begins to bend, it becomes an abstracted thing. Sometimes the piece is very, very, funny then you’re walloped by this terrible melancholy. It’s an incredible book.”

Walsh describes meeting and working with Porter; “We were put together by Complicité who asked me would I adapt and direct it. I replied ‘I don’t know whether it needs adapting yet but I’ll certainly direct it and I should meet Max.' So we met and we chatted about it. I was incredibly impressed by his writing but he is also a wonderful collaborator. He’s an editor himself for Granta, so he is used to working with writers and being involved in the dialogue of trying to make things and he’s been involved in many books.

Cillian Murphy

"A while ago, in London, we did a week of work with him and Cillian and Teho Teardo, who’s composing, and Helen Atkinson, who’s doing sound, and we just threw it around. Max was so brilliant in the rehearsal room. I had said to him he should come into the rehearsal room and take over and ‘do some stuff’. None of us got any answers out of him but he was hilarious craic!”

I ask Enda how he aims to transform the book into a piece of theatre. “The story at times feels like a possession but also a haunting,” he notes. “I think there is going to be a large film element to it and we’re also working with a 10-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy who, so far, are largely silent. I like to work a lot with audio so we have a notion that the boys have recorded all their pieces onto cassette tapes and we’re listening to those. We still have to figure how Cillian plays Crow and find a visual language for what Crow is.

"When I think about the piece I always think that it feels like there is a haunting in that apartment that they all live in, it has that sort of feel to it. There’s a brilliant thing near the end of the book where the dad imagines Crow annotating Ted Hughes and how he would chop up and soil the words. There is so much craic to be had out of Crow that when he finally goes people should feel the sadness of that. He’s done his job; he’s worked for this man and his two sons. For Cillian it is going to be a hugely physical performance but I think people will recognize the input of all my collaborators and all their work, the choreography between Cillian, film, sound, and music.”

I mention that I recently saw a YouTube clip of Cillian reciting the Hughes poem ‘Lovesong’ which is referenced at the end of the book, and ask Enda if he is intending to use that in the show? “Not yet but you might have given me an idea!” he laughs. “They are all Max’s words we are using so far. We’ve had to edit it a little bit to give it a bit of air so that it is not all text but I’m not adding anything to it –I wouldn’t mess with his words at all, they are really beautiful.”

Enda concludes by revealing how Galway is getting the world premiere of this exciting show. “Complicité are an extraordinary company and they said to me ‘Where do you want to do it?’ and I said the guys who are going to make and build the set are all in Galway, and are all pals of mine, so I want to make it in this theatre. It’s an amazing thing to be allowed to do this work and we’re so chuffed that it is going to be playing in the Black Box.”

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers opens in Galway’s Black Box Theatre on March 20 2018 and runs until March 24, before touring to the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin from March 28 to April 5. Tickets will go on sale on December 8 at 2pm from (for Galway ) the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).

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