Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, needs little introduction. Its lively, fragmented, disjointed first-person account of girl’s growing to adulthood in abusive, violent and oppressive circumstances has drawn accolades, most recently in the US where it was published only this month to rave reviews by all the major newspapers and literary periodicals.
As well as being prize-winning, the novel is Joycean, Beckettian, and has been championed by Anne Enright, herself among contemporary writers the closest to McBride in her interests and use of style. Now, The Corn Exchange have adapted it as a play. In fact, there’s less adapting to do than on most novels: McBride’s experimental style and subject – a disjointed, fragmented, ravaged, first-person narration that also voices the dialogue of others – translate easily and brilliantly to the dramatic re-imagining of it as a single-actor performance of multiple parts. In fact, what seemed innovative in the novel now seems native in the play. And in Aoife Duffin, director Annie Ryan has found her Girl.
It packs a punch. Duffin gives voice to suffering, rage, violence as both victim and perpetrator with real intelligence and an astonishing control of pace, all the more impressive given the tendency of the language to hurtle forward faster and faster towards some greater catastrophe and, perhaps, silence. Measured though every move, every phrase is, you cannot take your eyes off her. And yet, the Girl remains strangely unformed, empty, absent: she realizes it too, observing of her abusive uncle that ‘what he takes is the what there is of me’.
So much of this production is restrained, pared back, as considered as the delivery. Lighting and sound are minimal, though always ominous. For all that she undergoes, Duffin’s Girl has a quiet way: she, too, is pared back, reactive, tense. But there is plenty of shouting and roaring when her mother contributes, shrill sniping for her preening aunt and hollow promises from the ghoulish religious who circle and circle her and her family throughout. But this multitude of voices is more than a bag of tricks, whether by actor or director or any other theatrical force. Movement, though often slight and always subtle, is at the heart of this performance, grounding the virtuoso pyrotechnics of its style.
It is a warrior’s flexing stance that Duffin – or the Girl? – adopts when she first emerges into the half-light, ready to begin the performance. If she is a fighter , the fights find her. And a whole panoply of vices and troubles, many of them all too recognisably Irish, seem to come looking: abandonment, illness, a sibling’s disability, cruelty, incest, religious fanaticism, rape. She may be a girl who suffers, but her suffering is resistance, and those around her know it. For all the restrained delivery, there is an undeniable ferocity to every moment. When the performance ends, Duffin seems hurt and shaken herself, barely able to muster a smile.
Ryan (who also adapted the text) generates a certain amount of discomfort by lingering over the immobilising language of the girl’s abuser, notably his insidious claim upon her: ‘I see you … and I can’t help wondering if you see me’. But that kind of discomfort is only momentary, the easier kind of analogy. Raw and terrible, the play ultimately asks us to bear witness not to the adults and many authority figures who command, bully and insist, but to the Girl, the commanded: to listen, see and connect.
This is the story of a girl who fights and loses. And it is the story of a girl who fights and wins. But loses.