You don’t often see a play in which you meet the main character while she’s still in the womb.
We hear her voice.
We watch her come into the world.
We see her as a child, a teenager and a young woman; the searing story of a life in an 75-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue.
“We feel like we are inside her mind, inside her brain, experiencing the world from her perspective,” says Erin Taylor, director of the Australian premiere of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at Kings Cross Theatre.
Adapted from the award-winning debut novel by the Irish writer Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a monologue describing in unflinching detail an Irish girl’s experience of Catholicism and the shame associated with sex and women’s bodies.
We never learn her name. But we hear her inner voice vividly, speaking to her brother, in something like a platonic love letter.
“The language feels like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett but in a fiercely female voice,” says Taylor.
Monologues written for women are comparatively rare though we’ve seen some impressive examples in Sydney in recent months, including The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (performed by Alison Whyte at the STC in January 2017), Mother (written for Noni Hazlehurst by Daniel Keene at Belvoir, in January), and Anna Barnes’ Lethal Indifference performed by Emily Barclay.
“Maybe we’re in the age of the female monologue?” says Taylor.
“In this play, we hear the entire story purely in the Girl’s voice. She is telling it. No one is speaking for her. There isn’t an intermediary man telling you her story. It is not secondary to the main plot. She is the story.”
Prince will be performing the role in an Irish accent but the story could be set anywhere, she says. “There is a strength to this character that I think many women can relate to. This woman expresses herself through her struggles and I admire how she fights for her sense of her own identity, despite having so much taken away from her.”
The play is graphic in its descriptions of sex and sexual violence.
Aged 13, the Girl is assaulted by a family member.
“It’s important that audiences know there is some shocking content,” says Taylor. “But it is an important part of her experience and it definitely shapes her view of the world and her way in the world and how she relates to men and sex.”
It is difficult territory for everyone involved in the show. “I swore I would never do another play about sexual assault after I directed Slut [by Patricia Cornelius],” says Taylor, who also assistant directed on Cornelius’ play Savages, which examined male behaviour and sexual assault. “But the voice in this play is so unique and so arresting, I felt like it should be staged. Now, I’m saying I won’t do another one after this.”
Prince agrees the content is difficult. “But I think we need to tell these stories,” she says. “Quite often women are seen as victims but the Girl doesn’t see herself as a victim. She claims what has happened to her. She lives her life voraciously with what she has. That is a beautiful thing that I think many women can relate to that.”
Adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan, the artistic director of Dublin’s Corn Exchange, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing debuted in 2014 with Irish actor Aoife Duffin in the role of the Girl.
That production went on to the Young Vic in London, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York.
The play’s Sydney premiere, presented by Brevity Theatre, is the work of all-female team: producer; director, all the creatives.
“The play is about a woman finding her voice,” says Taylor. “So the more I thought about it, the more I wanted a woman’s voice in every element of the production – the sound, lighting, design and in the decision-making around how we structure things and the way we work. In every element, we had a woman’s voice being realised in the theatrical process.”
For Prince, the all-female creative team has been important.
“It has been a beautiful experience, almost movingly so, in terms of support and the generosity of the other women,” she says. “There is a calmness in the rehearsal room that I’m not used to. Everyone is so hard-working and respectful of each other’s discipline.”
Prince, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, says working on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is like working on a long dramatic poem. “The world in the play is amazingly vibrant, reflexive and concentrated, and the focus it requires to perform something like this is quite unlike anything I’ve done before,” she says.
“It is physically challenging because it is so emotionally challenging, and it is somewhat intellectually challenging because of the density of the text. There are a huge amount of words. I have been terrified. A huge amount of my anxiety has been around the words.
“I’ve never had that before. I’ve always trusted my character’s words will come organically, particularly when you are sharing a scene with another actor, it flows. But this is like passing into another world.”
Taylor says Prince is downplaying her abilities. “For a normal human being, this play would be like running a marathon or playing a long game of soccer,” Taylor says. “It’s just that Ella can play a long game of soccer.”
“It is like a 20K run where you have so many thoughts,” Prince says. “You fall into a place of athleticism. But there is a purity to that. There is no off stage moment for me so I have to stay in it.”
The staging of the play is very minimal. Just a mound of dirt.
In the traverse theatre at KXT, the audience will be able to see each other clearly.
“We are all watching the Girl together, that’s part of the experience,” says Taylor. “For the audience it will be like jumping into a rushing cold river and going with it.
“It’s not a cosy Irish folk story, it’s much more modern than that. There will definitely be confronting scenes. I find it confronting. But it sits in a poetic realm, as opposed to a production like Dry Land [also staged at KXT] which was rooted in the now and naturalism.
“This is more like Slut or Shit, where Patricia Cornelius is writing very recognisable women but they speak in a heightened and poetic way and the setting isn’t naturalistic but there is an intense truth to it. We sit in another world for an hour.”