In the weeks leading up to the 2014 premiere of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Aoife Duffin began listening to a squall of disturbing voices, all of them her own. She had recorded herself speaking the words of Annie Ryan's startling adaptation of Eimear McBride's bruising novel, and listened over and over to details of a repressed childhood in rural Ireland, punishing Catholicism, family illness, sexual abuse and self-destruction.
Corn Exchange’s production was an urgent piece of work, a gripping and divisive experience. As it returns for a Dublin and Belfast run this month, those voices are back crowding Duffin’s head.
“I listen to it walking around Dublin,” the actor says, “shopping for milk, sitting on the toilet. Every free moment I’ll have some section of it playing on my phone. It became quite musical, the rhythm of it. That’s how I’ve embedded it into myself.”
Those who have read McBride’s award- winning first novel (written in six months, as though unleashing a torrent) or who have seen the production (which Ryan adapted at similar speed) will shudder at the thought of living with that much distress.
Whatever breathless reviewers say, books are always “putdownable”; you adjust your pace to suit the journey. A performance decides the pace for you, and Corn Exchange’s version, delivered in an uninterrupted 80-minute sitting, makes for a very different experience. “Most people come to a natural stopping point in the book, and they have to put it down for a week before they can pick it up again,” says Ryan. “We have to keep them all the way until the end. So how do you do that?”
The first and most crucial answer was to cast Duffin, who has always found traction and steel in her roles. Audiences might recognise her as the surly teenager Trisha in Chris O'Dowd's TV comedy Moone Boy. Like many of her roles, the part capitalises on her seemingly perpetual youth, her dark expressive features and her comic flair.
On stage, those traits have given her an uncommon versatility. I first saw her in an adaptation of Eugene Onegin in 2006, and she is still the only thing I recall about the production: energetic, commanding and precise across multiple characters.
Duffin went on to play a range of what you might call “girl” roles; the young women in theatre who neither life, nor their writers, have fully developed.
In Playboy of the Western World, she cackled around Christy Mahon with a cameraphone in the Abbey's 2007 update. She made a libidinous young lover in Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer and a surprisingly vampish Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest (both for Rough Magic). She originated the role of Amber, a Dublin teen in "trouble", in Elaine Murphy's hugely successful Little Gem.
Duffin has also proved to be daring in alternative performances, such as the deconstructed fairy tale of Pan Pan's The Crumb Trail and the arch self-reference of Dylan Tighe's Record. Still, her career has been more remarkable for how she continually finds flesh in otherwise half-formed roles.
Girl who cried witch
Is it any wonder Duffin appeared to relish playing Abigail Williams in the Lyric's The Crucible, for which she won an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award in 2012? The Salem teenager, spurned by her ex-lover, begins crying witch in retaliation. Before it is over, dozens have been led to the gallows.
The character, roundly vilified, is really a creation of male anxiety, a fearful fantasy of seduction and destruction, which Duffin understood better than playwright Arthur Miller. Watching mountainous men actually backing away from Duffin’s tiny accuser in Conall Morrison’s excellent production, you saw a brilliant understanding of power reversal, and, perhaps, an actor taking a gleeful hatchet to every “girl” role.
On a crisp evening in Dublin, in a cold rehearsal room, Duffin sits opposite director Annie Ryan at a long desk, occasionally picking from a packet of raisins. Otherwise, their faces are mirrors of solemnity. Without any discernible heating, they have wrapped themselves tightly in blankets. They look vaguely like war refugees, or burritos of unhappiness.
“Would you like to keep going?” asks Ryan gently. “You’re doing really well. We’re ahead of schedule.” It is hard to tell immediately whether this is a rehearsal or a therapy session.
Duffin isn’t inclined to bleed for public consumption, however. At a post-show discussion last year, she bounded back onstage almost weightlessly after her monologue, to the surprise of her audience.
“It’s so nice to have people to talk to,” she says. “There was a lot of curiosity, I remember, about whether or not I was a normal person. What the hell must be wrong with me as an individual?”
Blame it on the persistent, romantic notion that in order to perform or write trauma persuasively you have to know it from the inside. Nonetheless, you can spend so long mimicking trauma that you start to absorb it. Duffin first tried to turn down the role when Ryan flew to London to meet her. She was performing in Headlong's production of Spring Awakening, as Wendla, another victim of sexual repression, abuse and intolerance. (She played the same part in Thomas Kilroy's Irish adaptation, Christ Deliver Us!, for the Abbey.) She hadn't been sleeping.
“I just can’t do another play about rape,” Duffin had said.
“Look, don’t do it,” Ryan told her, in sympathy.
“Annie’s really good at negotiations,” says Duffin now laughing, and she draws her voice up in wounded defiance. “Well, okay, maybe I could do it.” She shrieks with laughter. “Annie’s reverse psychology is just perfect.”
Those roles might sound similar, yet Duffin sees them as worlds apart.
"They are very different shows about what it is to be a girl," she reasons. "A friend of mine said, 'Wow, you've really grown as an actor with A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing'. And I was thinking, f*** you."
There was an "uncertainty" in her acting before, she was told, but A Girl was something much more solid. "Well, of course it is," she says. "It's not written by a German man from more than a century ago. Wendla is uncertain, I think."
Eimear McBride’s creation, though, at least has control of her own story.
Ryan picks up on theatre’s seldom discussed gender bias. “Men do action and women just do pain,” she says. “When you hire Derbhle Crotty or Aoife Duffin, you hire them to rip themselves apart downstage centre. That’s what they do. The question really is, does that have a long-term effect on somebody?”
She turns to Duffin. “What do you think?”
“Well, ask me in 20 years, maybe. If I’m still alive.”
A rare balance
Presented on a beautifully stark and ambiguous space, and performed through fractured and rushing words in a direct address to the Girl’s brother (or, perhaps, the audience), Corn Exchange’s production achieves a rare balance between vulnerability and victimhood, careful psychology and arresting symbolism.
“Freak thoughts, random stuff come into your head when you’re performing it,” says Duffin, who seems to exist both inside and outside of the part onstage.
“I’m constantly toying with how I should be performing it. You’re on that knife-edge of what’s careful, what’s good for me and what’s interesting for an audience. Because I am manipulating my own emotions.”
Does she do something to decompress after rehearsals, besides listen to her lines on an infinite loop? “They spoil the shit out of me,” she says eagerly of Corn Exchange. “We did so much yoga. They bought me massages. I just ate vegetables and drank juices.”
A girl is a fully formed detox programme?
“Well detoxes don’t work, apparently,” she laughs, then adds, deadpan, “But the real solution is heroin. I do some heroin in the evenings.”
There is a necessary ambiguity between art and reality, and Duffin slips teasingly between the two. As we leave the rehearsal room, she shows me a tiny inscription that she keeps on her person, like a secret.
It reads: “Truth is just an idea if it is not lived.”
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, February 4th-14th; The Mac, Belfast, February 17th-21st; and The Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co Wicklow, February 27th-28th