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Theatre in Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Jenn Murray. Photo: Carol Rosegg

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing demonstrates what is arresting and yet worrying about so much contemporary Irish drama. This remorseless account of a young woman's upbringing is filled with stream-of-consciousness writing, individual bits of which can land like a bullet between the eyes. Consider these lines, describing the medical treatment of a child with a brain tumor, as seen through young eyes: "Feel fat juicy poison son young boy skin. Weeks for you. Weeks it. Scared and bald and wet the bed." Or this chilly view of the countryside: "Those fields. Filled up with rain. Even cows drown here. Even sheep. Even people if they're lucky. If Jesus was here, he would have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit." Of a visitation of charismatic Catholics, we are told, "They come with fruitcakes. Brown-skin nylons. Leatherette shoes. They pray to God and pray and pray for God's sake to be saved. They're swaying rolling, palms out rigid. Letting in the Holy Spirit."

With passages like that, there's little reason to doubt that Eimear McBride is a writer steeped in her country's literary history with a voice that is original and powerful on its own terms. McBride is also a novelist, and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a solo show, has been adapted from her book by Annie Ryan. As such, it represents the bemusing Irish trend of prioritizing literary expression over the demands of drama. It sometimes seems that every other play emanating from that lovely country consists of monologues, which is all right when the work in question is Little Gem, Pumpgirl, or Port Authority, to name three successfully produced by the Irish Rep. (Autumn Royal, the company's recent main stage attraction, frequently strays into monologue territory, although it does so very effectively.) The difference is these were conceived as plays, written with an ear for how words function in a theatre as opposed to on the page; in them, everyday speech is converted into something heightened, yet accessible to an audience.

McBride's writing, however gorgeous, is densely constructed, a thicket of words that require time to sink in -- more time than a theatrical experience can spare. She once told The Guardian, that, upon reading James Joyce's Ulysses, she decided, "Everything I have written before is rubbish, and today is the beginning of something else." That turned out to be a Joycean stream-of-consciousness combined with a Beckettian austerity of vision. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a piece of remarkable integrity, but it is a relentless, exhausting account of a loveless life.

It is also difficult to parse. The nameless narrator recounts her life from her toddler years to early adulthood, speaking in the second person to her damaged brother and impersonating a variety of characters. Key incidents include her brother's brain operations; an affair with her uncle (in which she gets her first taste of sexual power); other erotic encounters, rendered in grim detail; a funeral; and several dustups with her easily shamed and unforgiving mother, which sometimes involve physical violence. Of course, it all ends in tragedy. Told more straightforwardly, it might make for a powerfully compelling narrative, but Ryan's script gives no quarter; on the page, no remark is attributed to a specific speaker and shifts in character are signaled in the text by line breaks. In the theatre, this puts an enormous burden on the actress Jenn Murray, who compounds the difficulty by not giving each speaker a distinct voice. You must listen very, very hard to receive this piece's stony insights, even to know who is talking. Fans of the novel, which has received a cascade of awards, may enjoy hearing it rendered live. Coming to it cold, I found the experience to be dauntingly hard work.

Murray is an authoritative presence whom one wants to see again, but surely Ryan and director Nicola Murphy could have done more to clarify the narrative without doing harm to the original text. Certainly. Chen-Wei Liao's set, a stark arrangement of cement walls, creates a suitable environment, for the script's harsh insights, especially when aided by the subtle transformations of Michael O'Connor's lighting design. Esther Arroyo's costume and Nathanael Brown's music and sound are also solid.

This sort of exercise in prose as performance can occasionally be effective; the Irish Rep's 2019 production of Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom effectively took us inside the sensibility of Joyce's celebrated heroine. But it relied on a much better-known text and was done with an eye toward illuminating and dramatizing Joyce's writing. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing all but dares you to tune it out and you will need considerable fortitude not to do so. --David Barbour

(22 November 2021)

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