Annie Ryan’s magnificent adaptation of Eimear McBride’s seminal novel was first performed two years ago in Dublin, and has just started its six week run at the Young Vic. The stage is half-covered in soil; the Girl (Aiofe Duffin) stands in a scraped-bare circle in the middle of the stage, vaguely luminescent in the dark. The spotlight waxes and wanes throughout the performance, but the magnetising Duffin always exists at least partly in the dark.
The play is a much-abridged version of the novel, an 80-minute monologue that sees Duffin inhabit dozens of different characters. Often this leads to unexpected scattergun bursts of laughter, the incidental irrepressible humour of childhood coming to life in Duffin’s lively delivery. It is a testament to the immense strength of the Girl – and to Duffin’s extraordinary range – that such moments feel at home in the midst of the horror that permeates the piece.
Familial frustration simmers and boils throughout the text, the shocking abuse constantly defamiliarised by McBride’s fractured, beautiful language. In a play full of clamouring voices, the silences, which do not exist in the text, are especially powerful, a gaping, aching abyss that inhabits the stage like a physical thing.
This is largely thanks to Duffin, who has an astonishing physical presence: every character has a tangible, unique feel to them. The Girl is trying to escape her very insides, and that is something that comes to the forefront in her performance, a sense of attempting to transfigure, of twisting and itching and scratching at this sense of self.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a play about the defiant power of choice, even when that choice is almost incomprehensibly self-destructive. The play can seem cyclically inescapable, and the final moments, in a darkly ironic sense, feel like coming up for air. This is a deeply upsetting play, and not one that everyone can see. But it is a play that deserves to be seen, a play that burns with the vital fact of its existence.