Some people get spooked by clowns; for me, it’s ventriloquists. I’ve always found the premise of throwing a screechy child’s voice into the articulated mouth of a doll, as well as the pair’s always co-dependent power dynamic, rather creepy. However, my first thought watching Aoife Duffin in “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, was that this is the most frightening ventriloquist act ever. In Annie Ryan’s stage adaptation of Eimear McBride’s prize-winning novel, Duffin takes up position downstage center on a bleak patch of dirt to begin what is technically a one-woman monologue. But as her character, an anonymous girl/teen/woman, tries to claim space and an identity for herself, Duffin crowds her in with the dozens of unsavory antagonists of McBride’s scorching coming-of-age tale. And as fast as the stream-of-consciousness language howls and grumbles and jeers in Ryan’s adaptation, it feels – no, it actually looks – like Duffin throws her extraordinary range of voices into thin air where they instantly materialize into the characters she has just summoned. It’s been rightly hailed as a tour de force performance since the show’s premiere in Dublin in 2014 (the US premiere is a co-production of the Irish Arts Center).
McBride paints a devastating picture of Irish society, however, and Duffin’s raging characters should not be allowed within 100 metres of an Irish Tourism Board campaign. The novel paints unflinchingly a bog of repressed sexuality, knee-jerk Catholicism, lackadaisical health care, rampant chauvinism and dysfunctional, abusive families, set against a backdrop of muddy provinces and a provincial and polluted capital. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, but it’s McBride’s Joycean influences and her resulting “creative dazzle – half sound, half colour” according to the awards jury, that the Irish Arts Council would probably most like us to take away from the text.
The takeaway from this adaptation, of course, is all Duffin, whose portrayals – an incredibly varied chorus of voices but also faces and demeanors – reveal an admirably sensitive reading of the characters. The protagonist’s lecherous uncle speaks in a surprisingly caring voice but he beams a goofy smile you’d be daft to ever trust. Her mother is not as nuanced, however, as indeed she isn’t: her closed face and voice that hovers always on the edge of hysteria capture a lifetime of disappointment, fear and helplessness. These two are the girl’s main adversaries, and in Duffin’s way of holding them up to the light where they loom over the girl, they threaten to send her running from her own thoughts. Yet it is the novel’s main relationship, between the girl and her older brother, who, we learn in the first few minutes, is destined to die of brain cancer, that reveals the full range of feeling of this enigmatic anti-heroine; her monologic scream is delivered to him, and through it we learn that although the community would call her a slut, she mostly just wants to stop feeling so much pain. The Corn Exchange’s production adds just a hint of set – Lian Bell’s strip of soil and sand – and Sinéad Wallace’s lighting on Duffin’s exquisitely expressive face.
“A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” has to end in death for both of these two; there’s nowhere else to lay to rest such a wrenching story. Mulling that conclusion as well as Duffin’s performance, I looked up ventriloquism and read that it was initially a religious practice of the Ancient Greeks wherein a priest was thought to conjure up the voices of the dead. McBride’s cursed family could easily provide the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, but above all, Duffin’s performance taps that mystic quality of ancient ritual, where the living and the dead, the present and absent, the visible and the invisible walk and talk as one.