Aoife Duffin reprises her one-woman performance for the production’s London début.
In Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s 2013 novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, all bets are off. The play is a deep-dive into the muck of a fated girl’s life, in which Aoife Duffin (as the Girl) occupies the entire narrative space—though her movement is minimal, and she never abandons her dimly lit half-moon at the front of the stage. Duffin’s eighty-five-minute monologue revisits a multiplicity of characters that populate the Girl’s coming-of-age, ranging from the abusive to the ambivalent. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are swapped for the seemingly instantaneous command of snot and tears. Perhaps the most beautiful, almost sacramental gesture was observed by the front row: during several of her ongoing transformations, Duffin curses in rabid anger, and our gazes followed the generous fountains of spittle as they arced from her lips and caught the light, before evaporating above our heads.
Brutalized by her tyrannical single mother, suffocated by Catholic fanaticism, a predatory uncle, and small-town defamation, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is no less sharply focused on the roles assumed by, or assigned by, the familiar Irish family drama. But the momentum of the production is not defined by one viscerally thrilling moment as it is by the Girl’s recurrent evocation of “you,” which she uses to refer to her terminally ill and brain-damaged brother. His shadow is compressed into the quietly burning point of her story’s pulse. The production’s literary excitement—in addition to retaining McBride’s satisfying inventions, like “tickle-gigs” and “shite-hawk”—lies in the self-portrait of a mind in demise from the very start, at the very limits of coherence and dignity, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and sexual mania, survival and implosion.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is produced by The Corn Exchange, Ireland’s essential contemporary theatre lab, which Ryan founded in 1995. Whether adapting works of literature or engineering site-specific shows, the company’s major subject is Ireland’s national memory, blending emotional archeology with imaginative renovation. The play, like McBride’s novel, requires considerable cerebral investment, which at times can be excruciating. (“I think that was amazing, but my head hurts,” said a wide-eyed twenty-something to his twenty-something lady companion, as we all shuffled out of the Young Vic’s Maria Theatre.) But Ryan’s stage adaptation drains away the book’s death grip. What remains is a production of shape-shifting and friction-full beauty, down to the last inch of Duffin’s pajamed ankles and unbrushed coiffure (a wiry ponytail). Ryan’s antitheatrical theatre dispenses with the usual means of indicating what’s going on—not least, dialogue—and the entire visual world lacks objects, save for the stage’s sprinkling of woodchips and dark earth, whose coarseness we are forced to consider against Duffin’s bare feet.
Duffin is an aching, growling performer who is able to call upon bruising laughter during the Girl’s blackest hours. She brings the alarming clarity of the fractured prose into brilliant focus. Given the Girl’s uninterrupted presence and “authorship” of her own story, isn’t she the character with control over the text of her life? It is not until the end of the play that material act of writing oneself into and out of existence comes to the fore, as the Girl narrates her suicidal drowning. “My name is gone,” Duffin declares, which is also the last line from the novel. As soon as the last syllable was pronounced, the lights went off, and there was darkness, a long silence. And in this darkness, with Duffin still standing centre stage, the ovation began.
By M. René Bradshaw
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Adapted by Annie Ryan
The Young Vic
February 17 2016 – March 26 2016
M. René Bradshaw was born in California and lives in London. She is Editor-at-large at Asymptote Journal.