In April this year I was treated to two theatre tickets for my birthday.
It was to a play I knew nothing about and a writer I hadn’t heard of.
That play was Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
The novel, upon which the play is based, is staggering. Written in unflinchingly modern prose it begins fragmented, stitching together pieces of a woman’s childhood. It’s closer to a poem than a traditional novel.
McBride famously sent the manuscript to several publishers, all of which rejected her. Eventually, she was picked up by a Norwich publishing house. She then went on to win five major awards.
So there I am, waiting for the play to start, not knowing what is going to happen.
And then Aoife Duffin walks on stage.
She’s wearing pyjamas. She looks vulnerable. She begins to speak.
“For you. You soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of your skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes, you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Then wait an hour and day.”
Duffin speaks and the room is hypnotised. She’s bleeding the words, sweating them out through her skin. From the second she begins you forget you’re in a theatre. It’s just her and you, not a theatre full of people.
And it’s not just Girl that she plays. Every character from the book is painted in flinching body movements, arched eyebrows and threatening stances.
Duffin is a shape-shifter. She takes each character and inhabits their skin until you itch. She plays Girl’s rapist as menacingly as she plays Girl ferociously.
The direction is sparse, leaving Duffin the focal point of the show. She barely moves from her opening position and yet it doesn’t matter. Duffin is all-consuming.
For the next two hours we’re told the story of a girl’s relationship to her brother and how it casts a shadow over the rest of her life. Her chaotic sexuality is put front and centre. It’s unfalteringly feminist and proud of it. A Girl is leaves you uncomfortable and pained. When Girl cries you cry with her. Every punch is a punch to you, every memory a fragment of your own life.
Intimate, vulnerable and brave McBride’s story is one that deserved its delayed praise. Annie Ryan’s sparse direction, allowed the lyrical writing to speak for itself.
When Duffin starts, everything else stops and Ryan knew this.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a story that gets under your skin. It stays there and festers for a few days, leaving you changed.
Read the book. Get hold of the script. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.