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25 February 2016

On stage, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing becomes fully formed

Adaptations are often lamented for not living up to their source material, but the Young Vic production of Eimear McBride's novel brilliantly bucks the trend.

By Mark Lawson

Adapted novels, the lifeblood of television, are a more unusual transfusion in the theatre, although a few books – Les Misérables, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – have brought spectacular returns. Without yet threatening such longevity, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, a dramatisation of Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning novel, began at the Dublin Festival in 2014 and, after success at Edinburgh and on tour, now arrives in London with something of a must-see buzz.

On the page, the elements that eventually enthralled judges and critics were those that had left the manuscript rejected by publishers for a decade: the hyper-Joycean modernism of its torrent of unspecified speakers and non-chronological incident. For the stage, the adaptor-director Annie Ryan has adopted the relatively conventional form of a ventriloquistic monologue, which, fittingly, has a strong Irish tradition theatrically, in the work of Samuel Beckett, Conor McPherson and Brian Friel.

Those writers all gave magnificent soliloquies to women characters, but A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing has a completely female focus that is rare in theatre. The actress, Aoife Duffin, is alone on a long strip of sand and leaves, which, miraculously, soon feels crowded as she peoples it with the characters encountered during the short life of a protagonist identified only as Girl.

The naming feels like an attempt at universality, but the risk of AGIAHFT on paper was that its storyline invoked a rural Irish tragedy that cultural stereotype had robbed of its pain. With her absent and then dead father, piously tragic mammy, Jesus-preaching grandfather, brain-damaged brother and incestuous uncle, Girl is burdened with the sort of Celtic-terrible CV that the satirist Tom Lehrer lampooned in his spoof “Irish Ballad”, where the corpses pile up on the farm. (“One morning in a fit of pique/She drowned her father in the creek.”)

The oblique style of the book was possibly a strategy to distract from the plot’s potentially risible pile-up of crises. The different – and thrilling – theatrical solution is the specificity that Duffin brings to each event and speaker, making its alternation of sex and death delicate rather than relentless.

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As we follow Girl from embryo to corpse, the main first-person narrating voice graduates from perky-gawky to sassy-adolescent. Within this home tone, the actress uses the lower end of her register effortlessly to summon up priests and male relatives; or, for children and Mammy, her shrillest notes. Simultaneously, an extraordinary sort of facial origami is going on. Through a sudden frown or smoothing of the brow, a widening of both eyes or the hooding of one, tiny turns of a cheek or dip of the chin, she delivers a new person to the stage. Her performance is a sort of benevolent example of psychiatric possession.

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Much response to the novel – for and against – turned on its use of language in which, perhaps most excitingly to those critics least familiar with Beckett and Joyce, conventional syntax is abandoned. “Flexed and on a wire I’m,” Girl notes post-coitally. A dip in a lake leads her to reflect: “How strange my baptise renders me.” In the novel, such heavily literary illiteracy sometimes felt a chore for the eye, but, in that trick of the ear that can happen when complex ­poetry is read aloud, the meaning is always clear when Duffin speaks it; even, remarkably, in a climactic sequence when Girl starts to lose control not only of syntax but syllables and word-spacing: “Dinnerandtea I choke mny. Up my. Thrtoat I.” (Sic, or in this case, sick.) Even this nonsense comes out sounding like a sonnet.

The tight space of the Young Vic’s Maria studio suits this intimate piece better than the high, wide Traverse, where I first saw it at the Edinburgh Festival. And, after 18 months of familiarity with a text that must initially have seemed unlearnable and unspeakable, Duffin delivers it with a mesmerising fluency and dexterity.

A risk in directing monologues is to lose faith in the audience’s concentration and introduce physical business or lighting and video pyrotechnics by way of distraction. But, apart from one gymnastic change of perspective, Ryan trusts Duffin’s face and voice to hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes, which, to the great credit of actress and production, feels like less. It is common to lament adaptations as an inevitably inferior presentation of a book, but McBride’s text becomes fully formed on stage.

A Girl is a Half-Formed thing runs until 26 March. Details: youngvic.org

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash