By DAVID COLLARD
The highlight of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival was the English premiere of Annie Ryan's stage adaptation of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride's debut novel.
The 300-seat Playhouse Theatre was a particularly appropriate venue because Norwich is home to the independent Galley Beggar Press, publishers of the novel in 2013. Over the subsequent months it went on to win just about every literary prize: the Goldsmiths, the Baileys (formerly Orange), the Kerry, the Geoffrey Faber and the Desmond Elliott. This spectacular haul was all the more surprising because A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is quite unlike the heavyweight middlebrow writing that dominates most shortlists.
Before going on I should declare an interest. I wrote the first ever review of the novel (for the TLS) and have just completed a monograph on the author and her work (with emphasis on the latter).
I'd been invited by the festival organisers to chair a post-show discussion following the second performance in the play’s short run, and was joined on stage by the director, the author and (later) the solo performer, Aoife Duffin (of whom more in a moment).
The Chicago-born Ryan, founder of Dublin's Corn Exchange Theatre, had her work cut out in adapting it for performance. Her version runs for a brisk eighty minutes, cutting around 85 per cent of the original text. The audiobook version of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – read superbly by the author – lasts for seven-and-a-half hours and there's not a line that's easily lost, not a word.
In our discussion Ryan recalled telling the author at the outset that she thought the novel was performable, but not necessarily stageable (a nice distinction). The author imposed the challenging condition that the audience should not see the girl, because everything in the book is experienced from her perspective. Although constantly subject to a predatory male gaze, the nameless girl is never described. There's no mediating authorial presence and the reader experiences with startling directness everything that happens to the girl. Many of these things are terrible, and that is what makes the novel so emotionally overwhelming.
Arriving at a pared-down script after many drafts and re-drafts, the next great challenge was to find a performer who could be present on a bare stage yet remain effectively invisible. Ryan already had an actor in mind, and her casting was inspired.
The extraordinary Aoife Duffin gave one of the most powerful theatrical performances I've ever seen, Thirty years old and slightly built, she portrayed the girl as a foetus (briefly), then as a newborn baby, toddler, gauche teen and troubled young woman – a whole lifetime. She also played every other character with virtuosity: the mother (particularly impressive), the dying brother, the bigot grandfather, the predatory uncle, a bunch of callous schoolboys, university students, gormless evangelical Christians and others, many others. This was a superb display of physical acting – subtle, detailed and constantly inventive, enriched by her distinctive Kerry accent, by turns soft and grating. It was a gruelling experience for both Duffin and her audience, and I was reminded of Billie Whitelaw directed by Beckett in Not I.
In the post-show talk McBride, who studied theatre at Drama Centre in London, described her approach as “method writing” and we explored, briefly, the overlap between Stanislavskian approaches to acting and writing. We were later joined by Duffin (greeted with a burst of applause) and the discussion continued with many illuminating insights into the genesis of the production and the travails of rehearsal. I listened in a slight daze, unable to detach myself from the intense experience of the previous eighty minutes. When I saw the show again the following night it was, if anything, even more powerful. Like the novel, it has a momentous presence. Unlike the novel, the play is a collective experience.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing recently appeared in Dutch translation as Een meisje is maar half af and will be published in French next month, with other translations to follow. Also next month the author will be reading, for the first time in public, passages from her forthcoming second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, due for publication next year. Before that keenly-awaited event the Corn Exchange production will be visiting other venues in Britain and is not to be missed.