A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, written by Eimear McBride when she was just 27, is not your classic Bildungsroman. The novel, on which Annie Ryan’s adaptation is so closely based, tells of a young, never-named Irish girl who encounters different kinds of love and loss and many kinds of abuse: sexual, emotional and physical. The Irish triumvirate of guilt, shame and God provides the backbone to the narrative, but the story, which begins when the narrator is in the womb, is fleshed out with a strange stream of consciousness that batters language into feeling. Everything is experienced from within the narrator’s head. But narrator is perhaps the wrong word, as she isn’t telling us her story, we are experiencing it through her.
So how do you stage such interiority? Do you suspend your lead actor in a model of a womb as they did in A Cock and Bull Story (the film of Laurence Stern’s unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy)? Not if you want to do justice to the honesty and tragedy of the book. Instead, you do exactly as Ryan has done and ask the staggering Aoife Duffin to command Lian Bell’s stark stage for 80 minutes, while Sinéad Wallace and Mel Mercier work subtle magic with the lighting and sound. The stage darkens, spotlights intensify and the hum of background noises comes and goes to signal changes in time, place and mood. But nothing ever overwhelms Duffin’s brutal monologue. As the first production of this adaptation, it doesn’t mean much to call it definitive, but it seems safe to say that it will prove to be so.
Impressively, Duffin plays every character, including myriad abusive men and her sinned against, and sinning, mother. Duffin does not falter, swapping between the voices with skill and humour. It is the scathing honesty of her caricatures that makes us laugh; aunts are snobbish, uncles leering and schoolboys clamouring for a wank. She sees through everyone and we see them through the distorting fisheye lense of her experience. Here, and nowhere else, she is afforded narrative control.
As Ryan herself says, the stage adaptation “cannot touch the original in terms of intimacy, detail, breadth”. Instead, the audience is here “to bear witness”. This is imperative because as readers, as individuals, we can bear so much more. We are not stronger alone than we are together – part of the girl’s sad tragedy is her isolation – but individuals will quietly endure much more than society publicly will. Indeed, the girl is stoic, steely, until she cannot stand it any more. Perhaps because she is unaware that others would abhor what she understands as ordinary, or perhaps because she protects herself by refusing to narrate her story to anyone else.
When reading the novel, you are alone inside the girl’s head. You are her and it is traumatic but you endure it as she endures it. Except, of course, that you are granted, or grant yourself, regular reprieves from her pain, closing the story to make a cup of tea or to get off the bus. But witnessing these events uninterrupted, as an outsider, surrounded by an audience of other outsiders makes it unbearable. There is no respite in this taut and expertly paced production, save the humour, and even that fades away into utter bleakness. Duffin left the stage visibly broken, and it is no wonder. She lives the girl’s story night after night so that audiences are forced to confront how terrible her story really is. And this is terribly important.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is on at the Young Vic until 26th March 2016. Click here for tickets.