by Raphael Badagliacca
Riveting, unsettling, uplifting – this play sears the heart. It is chaotic, random, invasive like grief itself. It upends and destroys our sense of time and linearity. It’s loud and ever present, inside of us and all around us. It will never entirely go away. It brought a stunned audience to its feet in a standing ovation, not one that builds, but one that is instant, without a moment’s hesitation.
A mother and wife has died, leaving a husband and two young boys. The crow comes into the nest. He announces himself by scratching ominous messages on the wall and delivering cryptic observations in an otherworldly, guttural voice. If sounds can be hallucinogenic, he makes hallucinogenic sounds.
At times, Dad (Cillian Murphy) speaks in his own bewildered voice about the shock that has struck him. He looks around and says the flat has lost its meaning. At times, he is possessed by the crow’s voice – it speaks through him – like grief possesses us. Grief is inside and all around us. With a hood obscuring most of his face he moves like a crazed cat burglar. He is not himself. There is no himself anymore.
The boys (older boy David Evans or Taighen O’Callaghan; younger boy Leo Hart or Adam Pemberton) know they are not getting a straight story about the sudden disappearance of their mum. “We guessed and understood that this was a new life and Dad was a different type of Dad and we were different boys.”
Having read in advance the slim novel on which this play is based, I could not help but appreciate the directorial decisions that made it come crashing to the stage. Never again, I’m sure, will I see typography so violently displayed. Letters spelling messages only to have them cascade loudly to the ground, blackness obscuring every expression. Utter chaos. The uttering of the crow and the chaos of it all.
Sometimes Dad is sitting at the typewriter and we see the words he is typing appear on the wall. Sometimes they are the words spoken by the crow who is in your face, like grief itself, often brilliant, sometimes funny, uninhibited, unabashed, unafraid, but also protective and curiously caring. The play can be thought of as three intertwining diaries – the Dad’s, the boys’, and the Crow’s.
If the actor’s assignment is to create a reality outside of himself meaningful to the audience, then Cillian Murphy achieves this in every way, from how he moves about the stage and speaks when possessed by the crow to how he presents himself as the Dad negotiating the disconcerting set of circumstances that has hijacked his life with death of his wife. He embodies the character so completely that we cannot imagine anyone else owning the part, just as he did in the television series, Peaky Blinders. In the talkback session, Director Enda Walsh drew a parallel between grief and the ultimately disorienting battlefield experience of soldiers in World War I. The Tommy Shelby of Peaky Blinders, newly returned from the war, galvanized by his experience, ruthless as the crow, competent in every respect, suffers his own form of PTSD, as does the crow. How could the crow not, with grief as his daily, constant concern?
You cannot help but be moved by this play, especially if you’ve lost someone.