David Hennessy talks to Aoife Duffin, known from Sky’s Moone Boy, as she prepares to take the stage adaptation of award-winning novel A Girl is a half-formed Thing to Edinburgh Festival
“You know when you connect with something that you can’t turn away from it,” Kerry actress Aoife Duffin says of her role in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.
The incredible debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride has won numerous awards since being published in 2013. Certainly not an easy read, Eimear McBride’s bruising novel deals with a repressed childhood in rural Ireland, punishing Catholicism, family illness, sexual abuse and self-destruction.
The upcoming Edinburgh festival will see Aoife Duffin recreating her much acclaimed role in the piece that follows the inner narrative of a girl from the womb to twenty with vivid intensity. She is a character of astonishing resilience and intelligence, someone determined to make sense of things amidst the crushing Catholicism and deprivation of her Irish childhood.
When Aoife was first approached to star in Annie Ryan’s distressing adaptation of the award-winning novel, the actress was initially reluctant to agree after a string of distressing roles.
“I had just come off of a tour, a Headlong show, Spring Awakening and it was quite heavy material as well and I had also done a version of that play maybe four years previous in the abbey, a Thomas Kilroy version of that beautiful play called Christ Deliver Us!
“So I guess I’ve played a lot of dark roles maybe and I just felt I wasn’t able for it again but when I read the book, that obviously was a different story then.
“I mean Spring Awakening was written by a German in the 18th century so something like A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is so much closer to me, it’s written by an Irish woman growing up in the west of Ireland, I connected with it on another level that I probably hadn’t done before so you can’t say no to those kind of things.”
Having been reluctant initially, is Aoife now glad she came on board? “Yeah, I am glad. And I’ve learned a lot about myself doing it actually, I’ve learned a lot about how to get through something like this, how to fight and how to beat it, how to wrestle with it. I suppose that’s what performance is, going back onstage every night and climbing back into it so it’s required me to really look after myself so that’s been a good learning experience. It’s a golden opportunity for an actor to play a part like this, I think. I’m definitely glad I did it. It’s still a lot of work.”
The play premiered at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival prior to a sold out Irish tour earlier this year. The Irish Independent said of Aoife’s solo performance, ‘There is more tension, drama and suspense in this pungent, pugnacious single-handed performance than in most contemporary Irish drama with a fuill cast’. Aoife will be performing all through August as part of the renowned Edinburgh festival and then a UK tour is planned for 2016.
The production has just played a sell out season at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival which is where author Eimear McBride now lives: “She has been ( behind it), yeah. It’s been very important to get her seal of approval to know that she’s behind it and I was hanging out with her in Norwich for the festival and she came to see it. She’s been to see it a lot now and she’s seen it grow and change and has helped me with moments in it. It’s evolved and she’s seen that and that’s been really cool because she’s a very cool woman.”
And what sort of reactions does the show get from the general public? “The initial reaction, I think people are a bit shocked maybe. Some people describe it as like being punched in the face for an hour and twenty minutes. When I have the very last line in the piece and then the lights come down, in Norwich there was kind of a silence always and sometimes there’s a bit of an intake of breath because people might be holding their breath a bit for the piece, the people who are engaged with it.
“When we’ve had post show discussions, people have been keen to talk. We like the post show discussions because it is a chance to get a therapy for us and everybody,” Aoife laughs.
“It’s a lot to take in, there’s a lot going on for an hour and 20 minutes. Theatre takes concentration and work from an audience and for the book, when people read the book, you have to work at it I suppose so it’s good to have that interaction afterwards, I don’t always get to. Most of the time, I just go back to the dressing room and back to the hotel or whatever and hope that it’s landed well. Most of the time we’re just guessing by the energy in the room that people are with you or not.”
The difference between Eimear McBride’s novel and the stage show is that you can put the book down for a break: “Everybody seems to say about reading the book that you would have to put it down but it’s a different experience reading a book than it is watching a play, completely different so there’s no escape for me or for the audience or for her.”
Does this mean Aoife’s preparation had to be suitably relentless to get into the character? “Yeah, it was relentless and immersive and we just dived in and had to really commit to it, there was no half doing it really.
“The director was very good with allowing me to say, with it being only me, ‘I need a break’ or whatever, it was all about listening to me and what I needed or wanted. There was also days when I had to push on through as well because a lot of the time you don’t want to go near these subject matters. If we could choose when we wanted to take a rest, then we would all just lie down and die anyway. It did require a lot of work and concentration but that’s the job.”
Aoife would be recognisable from her role as a member of the Moone family in Chris O’Dowd’s Irish sitcom Moone Boy. Her stage credits include originating the role of Amber in Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, a 2007 update of The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey and playing Abigail in The Crucible at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast , for which she won an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award in 2012.
Aoife said during a previous run that she was still playing with how to perform the character. Is this still the case, having taken it around Ireland to a warm reception? “You’re always climbing back in and you’re always kind of trying to find new things. It’s never finished, I don’t think. There’s a particular ‘I met a man’ speech that I was kind of wrestling with. That particular speech, I feel only landed for me in Norwich how I need to do it but you hope you’re within the realms of where it’s supposed to be but meaning changes. Things grow, evolve. The live form is very changeable.”
Does the show adapt to each new audience? “Definitely, I think so. Belfast felt different because the space was smaller so you’re adapting yourself to that. The energy in Norwich was different, people laughed a lot more for the first 20 minutes than they did in Ireland actually. That could have been down to me as well, I was feeling a bit more rested, maybe a bit more playful. I think these things are so down to you and the audience, you feed off each other. It’s like stand-up or something. You don’t have anybody else onstage to bounce off so you’re bouncing off the audience.”
In conversations or articles about the book or play, it’s humour is often not mentioned: “The girl is funny, I think. She’s got a good biting wit, she’s quick and smart and that translates into being quite funny at times I think. The more fun we can get out of it at the beginning the better I think because there’s a lot of darkness in there.”
On the more difficult subjects that the play explores, Aoife says: “The writing is so on point I think, is so there, I was going to say there’s very little work for me to do, that’s not true either. But I think if any person had to just sit down and read this play, actor or not, from start to finish, there’s something that happens to you through the structure of the language, the vernacular. There’s something in there that does something to you. She calls it method writing because she’s from this background of method acting. She studied method to be an actress so there’s a muscular feeling to her writing. There’s an immediacy to it.”
Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s award winning novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, starring Aoife Duffin, will be at Traverse 1, Edinburgh Fringe Festival from Thursday 6 to Sunday 30th August 2015. It is produced by The Corn Exchange, Dublin in association with Cusack Projects and supported by Culture Ireland, Dublin City and Arts Council Ireland.