A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Annie Ryan's harrowing, enlightening and deeply satisfying adaptation of Eimear McBride's Joycean novel is a must-see at The MAC in Belfast

Adaptations are having a moment just now, with novels making it into drama and film in categories covering the good (War Horse, which brilliantly cantered from book to play to film), the bad (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and the ugly (Fifty Shades of Grey). But does fiction always make good drama?
 
You might not think that Eimear McBride's multiple award-winning 2013 novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing – with its Joycean stream of consciousness and non-linear storytelling – would translate easily onto the stage. Yet on the evidence of tonight's premiere of Annie Ryan's adaptation at The MAC in Belfast, it works a treat. And is even, dare I say it, a tad clearer than the original, if less intimate than the story in my head.
 
It helps that Aoife Duffin is the actor undertaking this demanding one-woman show, playing an unnamed character (McBride doesn't trifle with those sorts of inessential specifics). Her commitment, intensity and vocal range are clear from the off, when she sets out her personal geography.
 
Touchingly, we meet our heroine in the womb, pushing to enjoy her mother's 'secret pressed hellos'. Once outside, in our world – the world of flaws that no amount of Our Father's can cure – she discovers what has already gone wrong; namely that her older brother is cursed with a brain tumour that has spread and will never be cured. 'We'll never be rid, do you understand?'
 
Although adaptor and director Ryan cuts 85% of McBride's original text, the general plot remains, and there is an added sense of individual storytelling.
 
As Duffin feels her way into this deeply affecting story of loss and messy grief, we sense the internal mechanism that makes her character doubly cursed. She helps fight her brother's battles when he is labelled 'spastic' at school, seeming to almost inhabit his difference, and then discovers a way of punishing the cruel world. It's called sex, and she learns of her power and the oblivion of mindless congress through her uncle.
 
This scene is grim and memorable. Duffin's voice is naturally alto in range, so her ability to vocally project the male characters doesn't feel forced. Her predatory uncle comes on to her slowly, with a real kiss, then later things change and she is introduced to grown up sex. Except that she is only 13 at the time. The moment when she smells his semen on her hands and wonders at a pubic hair that is longer and darker than hers is shocking and revelatory.
 
This abuse leads to the girl's history of self-abuse by way of affairs and one-night or one-day stands she finds wherever she can. It seems significant that the set is bare, the stage covered with mud – her need to find a way out through love-making that doesn't merit the name is well conveyed. And the moment, after her brother's relapse years later, when she offers herself to her uncle again in a wide white space, an emptiness, sums up the Freudian need of her actions.
 
You could say we get Aristotle's pity and fear here in abundance. The fear is fear of loneliness, of abandonment (by the father, who kindly leaves her mother with £50 before she is born), of the claustrophobic Catholic church still influential in Ireland today, of real emotional connections. 
 
Strangely, it almost seems as if the girl's primary relationship is with her uncle, and behind him the numerous other men who people her bed, rather than with her sick brother. Here, sex is really a substitute for love, a way of filling the void our unnamed heroine feels so acutely. Yet, as we journey with her towards the unbearable loss of her brother, we sense her pain. The hospice scenes and moment when she has to elbow aside the church members is both funny and sad. There are quite a few bleak laughs in the show, too.
 
McBride's psychology is so acute that its knife-like precision cuts into cosy notions of family or mother love. Duffin's howl as her mother when her brother dies remains with you after the show. The mother's role is, of course, totally unrewarding. She loses both children, has no support, is betrayed by the family member who abuses her child. And she often seems to be in the wrong, slapping her kids and losing control when her father visits and disapproves. The tender scene wherein the brother and sister heat up tomato soup for their mammy afterwards is beautifully done.
 
Near the end, our heroine is hugged by her mother as they bear witness to her brother's decline and death. She repeats, 'I am the right thing, I am the right thing, I am the right thing...' as if it's the first time she has felt truly needed. Although harrowing in places, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, with its poignant ending, is also enlightening and therefore deeply satisfying. It is not mis-drama, begotten of mis-lit, but something much finer. And Duffin's performance, with maybe a couple of tiny longueurs, is a real tour de force.
 
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing runs in The MAC, Belfast until February 21.