A girl who is deemed inferior to the damaged and/or questionable men surrounding her is the subject of Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, now adapted for the stage by director Annie Ryan. The story is heart-wrenchingly told by solo female performer Aoife Duffin, who masterfully brings to life this wild, poetic and staccato prose. We step inside our protagonist’s head and float along her stream of consciousness, navigating our way through fragments of sentences that frame her experiences of growing up as an Irish girl in a traditional Catholic home, with a mother who favours and forgives the male figures in their family: her brother who is sick with cancer, her father who has abandoned the family and her paedophilic uncle.
Gender is at the heart of McBride’s story and, specifically, what it means to grow up female. Girl’s mother raises her to see her life in relation to her male and supposedly superior counterparts. Girl’s mother frequently evokes the authority of her absent husband, the father of her children, who she keeps on a patriarchal pedestal despite his having walked out on the family. She implies to Girl that her father would be fit to judge her actions and would deem her a disgrace, were he present. After an uncle provokes a sexual encounter with the thirteen-year-old Girl (an act that is portended by his perverted and inappropriate comment, “do you climb out that window to meet your boyfriends at night?”), Girl attempts to use sex as her weapon to conquer the boys, and later the men, that she meets in life. “I met a man, I met a man,” Girl repeats, brushing off her reel of monotonous, unhappy sexual encounters. Even Girl’s rape only receives blame and rage from her mother, and is seen as an opportunity to lift up her skirt again by her pig-headed uncle. Girl’s mother sneers at her daughter for going to college and brandishes her “sick in the head” for pursuing her own lifestyle, whilst living in denial of the fact that her son is going to die of the cancer that has literally made him sick in the head.
In a story full of cruel relations and twisted encounters, Girl’s relationship with her brother – who she refers to as “You” – is the single pure and positive alliance in her life. She is fiercely protectedive of him and his adult innocence, in spite of her mother’s scathing favouritism. It is both heart-breaking and enraging to sit in the audience and listen to a mother’s sexist preference for her son, which is alluded to in wails of “my boy” or “my son”, but is ultimately and devastatingly realised in her final rejection of her daughter: “I almost wish it was you lying there in that box. You. And not. My. Son.”
McBride’s original novel comprises snippets of conversation spanning over twenty years, and Ryan’s careful cutting of this text paints a fulsome picture of Girl’s story that can be told in a ninety-minute play. Duffin single-handedly relays the story as fluently and authentically as if it were her own. She transitions seamlessly from one voice to the next whilst carrying us through the rapid text, never losing our interest as we watch her move across the bare strip of ground that is her stage. The final moments of the play come as a shock and are a little unexpected from the feisty character of Girl who, until this point, seems to work tirelessly against her position in life but ultimately accept it. Arguably, more pronounced moments of vulnerability in Girl would have helped to legitimise the ending; however, the play is primarily a poetic and rhythmic text that demands to be heard and requires only that we listen to the harsh realities, gritty details and unapologetic honesty that it has to relay.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is playing at the Young Vic until 26 March. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic