Edinburgh festival is not short on solo shows, but few manage a performance as captivating as Aoife Duffin; this monologue is both technically and emotionally impressive, leaving her – and her audience – wrung out like filthy rags.
For the story – taken from Eimear McBride’s acclaimed 2013 novel, and using her fragmented, stream-of-consciousness prose – is not a happy one. We’re with ‘the girl’ from the moments before she’s even born; a little life flashes by. There’s a capriciously cruel mother, absent father, sexual abuse, sexual (mis)adventure and sexual violence, with the great repressive weight of the Catholic church over it all. The entire thing is addressed to “you”: her brain-damaged, adored older brother.
In fact, it’s a credit to Duffin, and to adaptor-director Annie Ryan, that the performance is as spirited and leavened as it is; the show is undoubtedly harrowing, but there’s laughter in the dark too. The girl is dryly, comically unimpressed by the world around her, and the scorn she heaps on the unthinkingly religious, the sexually desperate or the snobbish gives her her own resistant power – for a time.
Duffin’s performance is a towering one. McBride’s prose is not always easy to follow, but Ryan’s instinct – that it works out-loud – proves absolutely correct. Duffin has a steely command of the language, while giving the impression that it’s organically flowing through her and out over us; her voice is richly sonorous, even with such elliptical material.
She modulates with polished ease between the different characters that surround the girl, but keeps her central, centred. It’s a relatively still performance, yet never dull – the vocal somersaults of McBride’s writing are too compelling for that – and Duffin makes each action and setting clear, while keeping the strange, pulsating poetry of it all. The text feels like it slides smoothly to the front of a long line of work by formally-experimental Irish dramatists; Ryan cites Beckett, but the dashing speed might make you think of Enda Walsh too.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is staged simply, in a semi-circle of light on a dirt-covered stage; Duffin is dressed in loose pyjamas, allowing a touch of vulnerability without anything approaching titillation. The atmosphere is one of intense focus; this is the theatrical experience in concentrated form, offering up a life condensed. In the dark auditorium, for ninety minutes it feels like the audience collectively holds its breath.