To say that Aoife Duffin’s performance in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a tour de force may not be doing the actress justice. After 85 minutes of sustained intensity, delivering a monologue on the most difficult material possible, it’s a wonder that the actress is still upright and functional. We of the audience were certainly left gasping for breath. Duffin’s performance is like W.B. Yeat’s description of Ireland’s Easter Uprising: a thing of “terrible beauty.”
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing has been perfectly adapted for the stage by director Annie Ryan from Eimear McBride’s intense debut novel of the same name. Like the source material, the story of repression, abuse and sexual exploitation in rural Ireland is delivered in a stream of consciousness. The staccato text is much influenced by Beckett and Joyce.Through isolated words and half-formed sentences “the girl” relates her soul-destroying history from ages two through 20. Words tumble out, gathering speed and increasing in complexity as the girl ages through the tale of her own personal chaos. Her story is not a pretty one. The material is harsh and bleak – it’s no wonder the girl believes she’s half-formed. That Duffin makes sense of the fragmentation and solidly communicates the girl’s inner turbulence is stunning and remarkable. More than that, Duffin is able to clearly differentiate the voices of the several characters who inhabit the story, separating them out from the girl’s point of view. Her delivery is an unwavering, fearless, in-your-face performance of raw emotion.
There’s nowhere to hide, either. Set designer Lian Bell’s stage is as bare and black as the inner world the girl inhabits. It’s a prison relieved only by the subtle lighting changes contrived by Sinéad Wallace, and atmospherically augmented by the understated music and sound design of Mel Mercier. When the girl appears (clad in pajama bottoms and layered t-shirts devised by Katie Crowley) she’s on her own. Without hesitation, Duffin launches with full force into the monologue. She barely moves at first, then becomes more animated, and finally enters into an intensely physical performance that adds the necessary clarity to the story-telling. And what a story it is: a controlling, guilting, unloving, pious Catholic mother; a beloved but terminally ill older brother (damaged by a childhood brain operation); a non-existent father; and an uncle-in-law who effectively rapes her when she’s only 13. Thus is unleashed a struggle by the girl to come to terms with her life. She turns to promiscuity and degrading, rough, even violent, sex. It’s the only power the girl has to weild as she tries unsuccessfully to better herself and stave off the inevitability of her brother’s early death. In the closing minutes of the monologue, at the brother’s coffin, the mother spits at the girl: “I almost wish it was you lying there in that box. You. And not. My. Son,” precipitating an inevitable ending. Duffin skillfully winds down, stepping into the last lines of the play with acquiescence, as the girl surrenders to her fate.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was originally presented by Ireland’s independent theater company, The Corn Exchange, founded by Annie Ryan a few decades ago. This U.S. debut production has been mounted by the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Irish Arts Center in association with Cusack Projects Limited. All are to be congratulated for taking risks and bravely fostering cutting-edge theater. While it’s true that A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the play’s importance can’t be underestimated – it has a lot to say and a lot that needs to be heard. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is theater for those willing to be challenged. And then there’s Aofie Duffin, whose titanic talent and fiercely honest portrayal of the girl is nothing less than magnificent.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, April 20-23 at 8 PM, April 24 at 3 PM, April 26-30 at 8 PM
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37 Street, 646-731-3200, www.bacnyc.org
Photo: Fiona Morgan