Annie Ryan’s acclaimed stage adaptation of Eimear McBride’s 2014 Baileys Prize winning novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has begun its sold-out run at the Young Vic. The 80-minute multi-voiced monologue performed by Aoife Duffin reveals the thoughts and experiences of a physically and psychologically damaged young woman. It’s a triumphant and devastatingly intimate portrayal of fury, guilt, regret, self-doubt and self-loathing. There are moments of wry observation and bitter humour along the way, but by the end of the remarkable performance both the audience and the actor are left hollowed and emotionally drained.
This harrowing tale of cruelty, abuse and religious bigotry, sexual awakening via a predatory uncle, and subsequent hedonistic abandon is tinged with sorrow at the ill health and mental difficulties of the girl’s elder brother, who is marked for life – and death – by the effects of a childhood brain tumour.
The adaptation itself is some accomplishment. The prose of the novel is an instinctive and inventive stream of overlapping voices, incomplete sentences, coined words and abbreviated sensations – reflecting the fact that we don’t think, feel or act according to the rules of grammar, and that our impulses and understanding are multilayered, instantaneous and too complex to be readily or ever wholly grasped. Having an actor perform the voices and memories swirling around the girl’s head greatly aids our understanding, and serves as an instructive primer on how to revisit the book.
McBride stipulated that no words or phrases from the novel should be changed in the transition to the stage, only cut – and what’s left in the playscript are finely wrought miniature poems, snatched conversations and fragmented episodes ruled by rhythm, alliteration and lurking rhyme:
On your blue bike you come breakily up the drive. Beet-faced boiled up ready to go.
What’s the wherm I? Who? Lying. Man beside. God. Oh yes. Yuck. Sweaty eye paps fill sinus guck.
I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead.
The audiobook of the novel weighs in at a little over seven and a half hours, so to condense the story by four-fifths while retaining the power and flavour of the original is an impressive feat.
Ryan, who also directs, premiered the production at Dublin’s Corn Exchange in 2014, and the Young Vic sessions are a prolonged staging post on a UK tour that has taken in the 2015 Edinburgh Festival – where Duffin won The Stage Award for Acting Excellence and the production a Fringe First Award and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award – Tobacco Studios, Bristol, The Quays, Salford and The Curve, Leicester. It continues at the Weston Studio at Millennium Centre, Cardiff (29 March to 2 April) and Everyman Liverpool (5 to 9 April, before a run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Jerome Robbins Theater, New York (20 to 30 April). Some day another actor will play the role, since to inhabit the part for so long must carry a heavy physical and mental burden. Duffin’s immaculate portrayal surely has to be captured in full on film for posterity. In the meantime, catch it while and wherever you can.
Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool in 1976 and grew up in the west of Ireland. In 1994, aged seventeen, she went to London and spent three years studying acting at the Drama Centre. Much of her twenties were spent temping and travelling. She moved to Cork in 2006, and to Norwich in 2011, where she still lives with her husband and daughter. Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, will be published by Faber & Faber in Autumn 2016.
Annie Ryan is a Chicago native who trained as an actor before founding The Corn Exchange in Dublin in 1995, where she is Artistic Director. After its run at the Young Vic, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing continues touring to Cardiff, Liverpool and New York.
Aoife Duffin’s theatre credits include Spring Awakening (UK tour), The Crucible (Lyric Theatre, Dublin) and Christ Deliver Us! (Abbey Theatre, Dublin). She is known for her role as Trisha Moone in Sky TV’s Moone Boy with Chris O’Dowd, and her film credits include Out of Here, What Richard Did and Behold the Lamb.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing continues at the Young Vic to Saturday 26 March. Call the box office on the day of a performance for any chance of returns.