Eimear McBride's boldly original novel has become a literary phenomenon. How can The Corn Exchange adapt it for the stage?
Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Sept 28-Oct 5
My review of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, adapted from the novel by Eimear McBride, coming up just as soon as I fight for opera tickets and drink schnapps ...
Open the first page of Eimear McBride's novel and your eyes will roll over splintered lines, sentences split in half ("For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name"), and a syntax hinting to an individual whose hold on reality has become fractured. You soon realise it just hasn't fully developed yet; the character is broadcasting from the womb. Yet, as we're brought through the life of McBride's narrator, who has no name and only the self-designation "I", her world never seems to be allowed to become fully whole. The girl is a half-formed thing.
If there is a danger to Annie Ryan's adaptation for The Corn Exchange, it's that it might give too solid a shape to a literary phenomenon celebrated for its destabilising structure. At first glance the novel is a task of gathering pieces to realise who and where is involved, but once actor Aoife Duffin lends her sedate intonation the action is clear: at the epicentre of this fragmentation is the girl's brother and his childhood brain tumour. The long casting affects of this is to send their father running, leaving them to be raised by a pious mother. As they grow up they drift apart, he into his sickness and she into her sexuality, and all the while an abusive family relative watching her from the shadows.
The thrill of it on the page is that words are grappling and busting free from their normal parameters in a style comparable to Joyce's Ulysses. Its translation onstage feels surprisingly familiar, to Enda Walsh mostly, including his demand of one character to enact several others. The permeability of McBride's narrator is that she often repeats the speech of others, as if before she can process it. This lends a melange of voices that can dynamise a monologue.
However, what we get isn't the demonstrative transformations of The Corn Exchange's past players, exemplified recently by Paul Reid in Man of Valour. Duffin's turn is all sly, conveying both a destruction of self and defiance of such. She moves warily between characters with a sensitivity from her and director Annie Ryan towards a unstable text. You can tell that Ryan has softened the edges of the intermittence found in the written source, helping the actor to contain the disintegrating girl. Underlying everything is the blaspheme, the furious young woman who, with Duffin's fire, rallies against a world that insists it makes sense but doesn't.
As the novel gives no specifics on time and place, the design works abstractly and can be profound. A simple detail like the broken line at the back of Lian Bell's stark set can connote a complete fissure. Sinéad Wallace's artful lighting is playing out its own tragedy, with side lamps often capturing the performer in half-light, casting shadows that wrap themselves around and steal her from view.
One contextual sign given licence is Katie Crowley's costume, dressing the performer in blue pyjamas, a sad reminder that the girl of the tale doesn't get to grow up. Her fate doesn't go unopposed; Duffin gives the impression that she's performing for her life. It charges what essentially is a modern Irish tragedy, besieged by a twisted Catholic morality that contaminates family, sickness and sexuality, an abusive influence crept into the lives of every one of us. From The Corn Exchange's delicate production, we'll question if any of us are fully formed. How could we be?
What did everybody else think?