Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

Lolita-Ruth

A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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Why are there so many adaptations in contemporary Irish theatre?

I’ve written a bit recently about my concerns about contemporary Irish playwriting. But there is a form of writing that appears to be thriving at present: adaptations.

This is something that was mentioned quite a bit at the Synge Summer School a few weeks ago, when several of the writers present spoke about how they’re being commissioned to write adaptations of novels quite regularly, but are struggling to have their original plays put on. We’ve also seen writers moving from one medium to another – turning a successful play into a musical or film, as Enda Walsh has done with Once, for example.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the topic of adaptation at the moment: I see a lot of academic articles about it, and think I’m right in saying that Palgrave Macmillan recently commissioned a book series on the topic of adaptation in theatre and performance. And certainly over the last few years I’ve seen some great adaptations. The most memorable was Gatz from Elevator Repair Service, but there have been others.

Most interesting in an Irish context is Frank McGuinness, who (as I’ve written before) has had to go abroad to produce all of his original new plays since 2002 – but whose adaptations of John Gabriel Borkman and The Dead both did very well on the main-stage of the Abbey. (though I see today that his new play will appear on the Abbey stage – great news)

I just had a quick glance at the Abbey’s online archive, and was surprised by how many adaptations there have been on the main stage since 2005 (Ben Barnes’ last year in the job). By ‘adaptation’ I mean a new version (usually by an Irish writer) of a non-Anglophone play OR a staging of a story originally created in some other medium. The list is quite interesting:

  • A Doll’s House 2005 (Abbey)
  • A Cry From Heaven 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest – With Prologue by Conall Morrison 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Bacchae of Baghdad – Euripides’ The Bacchae in a new Version 2006 (Abbey)
  • A Month in the Country 2006 (Abbey)
  • Hedda Gabler 2006 (Abbey)
  • The Playboy of the Western World – A New Version 2007 (Abbey)
  • Three Sisters 2008 (Abbey)
  • The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant 2009 (Abbey)
  • Christ Deliver Us! 2010 (Abbey)
  • John Gabriel Borkman 2010 (Abbey)
  • The Government Inspector – A new version after Nikolai Gogol 2011 (Abbey)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (2012)
  • The Dead (2012)

Many of those productions were excellent – I was very impressed by Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us, and loved the visiting production of Hedda Gabler in 2006.

Likewise in the Peacock we had terrific adaptations such as Chuck Mee’s Big Love and the Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We.

Over at the Gate, there have also been many adaptations: McPherson’s version of The Birds, Joseph O’Connor’s My Cousin Rachel, Ann-Marie Casey’s Little Women, and even the current Arthur Miller version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

In informal conversation with friends, the view is often expressed that the large number of adaptations in our mainstream theatres is a result of risk management. Theatres stage what is familiar for the same reasons that movie studios commission sequels and remakes, the argument goes – because audiences can’t reliably be depended upon to give the unknown a chance.

Another factor, I think, is festivalisation: literary adaptations are particularly popular on the Festival circuit at the moment, and I think that’s because something like The Great Gatsby is so familiar to audiences everywhere that it is able to transcend or sidestep the kinds of cultural barriers that sometimes impede the reception of work as it travels around the world.

But I think there must be more to it than the management of risk.  What is it about our writers that so many of them at the moment are interested in re-imagining what we think we already know? Is there a link between what our ‘established’ writers are doing with adaptation and what emerging companies are doing with devising? And why do we continue to value adaptations less than original works – to assume that a new original play by McGuinness is inherently more valuable than his (excellent) adaptation of The Dead?

I’m not sure. With the launch of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme imminent – and with the launch of the Fringe programme looming – I expect that we’ll be hearing more about this topic during coming months.