Annie Ryan is the founder and Artistic Director of The Corn Exchange. Her stage adaptation of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, based on the award-winning novel by Eimear McBride, is playing at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Fringe. Broadway Baby's Carly Brown sat down with her in the Traverse to discuss adaptation, staging traumatic material and the importance of sharing female stories.
We all know that there are very few parts for women and that’s because most of these stories are from a male point of view
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is a one-woman show that follows a girl’s inner narrative from womb to twenty. Actress Aoife Duffin plays the girl as she grapples with her brother’s illness, her family’s religious fervor and her own budding sexuality.
We began by discussing Eimear McBride’s novel. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the book and how I’d found it easier to understand McBride’s stylistically challenging language by reading it aloud.
‘The book is quite difficult to read because Eimear doesn’t delineate who is saying what or when. I had to read it aloud too. That’s really common. A lot of people start the book and the beginning is very abstract because of where the girl is. Then they put down the book because they think it’s too hard to read. But so many people have your same visceral response to the material when they continue reading. It’s incredible what Eimear has done.’
‘The other thing that I found as a relief, in a way, was when I discovered that Eimear was an actor. Then I went: Oh, that makes sense. I’m sure she’s also a literary genius, and I don’t want to take that away from her, but, at the same time, I understood that she was writing from that same place that an actor has to access, from that moment to moment experience. Visceral. Sensory. It makes sense that she has a Method training.’
‘Then, you mix that with the great influence of Ulysses. In a way, Joyce opened up the path by saying: You can write like that. The sound comes first, then the character, then the action. So it’s really from the senses. It’s incredibly present. So this book offers itself to the performer so easily in a way.’
Ryan, who has written the play text, then discussed how she adapted the novel for the stage.
‘Early on in the process, I thought that we’d really have to consult with Eimear to figure out what character is speaking when, but the only time we had any question around it was in the first four lines. Who is speaking? Myself and the actor weren’t really sure. Eimear says it’s the mother, but Aoife doesn’t really perform it that way. She performs it as though she’s speaking as a performer to the audience. ‘For you.’
‘Most of time though, if we looked carefully at the text, it usually became clear who was speaking or it became clear what the stronger choice was.’
‘We did get to work with Eimear for a week in Dublin, which was such a pleasure. She’s so funny, generous and smart. It’s so violent what we’ve done to her book and she obviously prefers the full version, which you can hear her read aloud. It’s over seven hours and she’s a fine actor with a beautiful voice, a gorgeous Mayo accent. But I figured out very early that I had to cut about 85% of the book, which is a lot of material. I knew because of the nature of the material that it couldn’t play much more than an hour.’
We discussed how she went about staging a story that contains traumatic material, including sexual abuse.
‘The main task for us was how do you tackle a book that has so much trauma in it. How do you hold an audience? How do you contain that energy? We lost a lot of amazing material. We have to be careful not to expel too much energy, too early on in the play.’
‘Throughout the brother’s illness in the piece, Aoife has to be careful not to go fully into the grief. If we go too deep too early, then we have all these other traumas to deal with. We’re trying to contain it until later moments in the play.’
We then talked about the significance of sharing this story about a girl’s experiences in a culture where female voices are often suppressed.
‘She doesn’t really get a voice in the family, to express her rage or her grief. The whole story is really about that suppression of a voice. And it’s so common. Countless people have been abused as kids. In Ireland, it’s particularly bad because it’s so wrapped with shame: Catholicism, shame about the body, shame about sex at all and misogyny.’
‘There’s also sense of unworthiness, that Irish women don’t have value; it’s only twenty years ago that the last Magdalene Laundry was closed. It’s so recent and it’s still so prevalent, this idea that our voices don’t really count. You don’t think that we’re living in a misogynistic culture, but actually we still are. On the stage especially, we all know that there are very few parts for women and that’s because most of these stories are from a male point of view.’
We talked about why she staged this as a one-woman show. I mentioned that I liked how all the other characters we encounter (including the girl’s mother, brother and uncle) are filtered through the girl’s narration. I asked her if that was one of the reasons why she chose not to have an ensemble cast.
‘Yeah, completely. I conceived of it as a one-woman show on a sparse set. That’s the pitch I gave to Eimear. She said: Yeah, that’s right. So I don’t even have the rights to cast more people! It’s all in the character’s mind. We’re in her mind in the book.’
‘Overall, we wanted it to be not literal. It’s in this Beckettian abstract world. We wanted to keep it about the voice. So we’re deliberately not making the picture that interesting. The set is really lovely, but it’s so sparse. The lighting comes from both sides of her face, so sometimes we can’t see her face that well. That’s all deliberate.’
I brought up the fact that the sparse set might bring out the universality of the story because the set wasn’t geographically or temporally specific.
‘Exactly. The book is so universal and yet so Irish too. There’s loads of Irishisms in it, but there’s no place names. It’s very stylized. Aoife’s own gorgeous Kerry accent also makes it very Irish, particularly for the UK audiences.’
The play text has been published by Faber and Faber and we talked about how other companies will be putting on the play in the future.
‘It’s exciting. It’s a great part. It’s a great voice to play and it would be fun to listen to it in another culture’s voice. I think it’s definitely an Irish piece. I can’t imagine anyone playing it but Aoife, but it’s a universal story. There’s abuse everywhere. There’s cruelty everywhere. There’s that longing for connection and just the fact of growing up as a girl, discovering and owning your own sexuality. That feeling, that’s in all of us.’
Company Website: http://www.cornexchange.ie