A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Firebird pose uncomfortable questions about the sexual objectification of young women, says KATHERINE M GRAHAM
IN TACKLING the issue of sexual abuse of young women, these two productions make for challenging, timely pieces of theatre.
They may differ, with the poetic stylisation of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a marked contrast to the gritty realism of Firebird, but both give a platform to the victims of sexual abuse and it is in that voice that so much of their theatrical power resides.
Adapted by director Annie Ryan from Eimear McBride’s novel, A Girl... tells the story of the unnamed protagonist, whose short life is marked by sexual abuse, violence and her younger brother’s cancer.
Phil Davies’s play Firebird, directed by Edward Hall, draws on real-life events of paedophile abuse in Rochdale and follows the experiences of Tia, a feisty and vulnerable young woman poignantly played by Callie Cook. Her life is dramatically changed after meeting “AJ” and falling in with a group of older men who sexually abuse her.
Both plays highlight the sexualisation of these young women. In A Girl..., the protagonist’s tangled sexual life unfolds after her uncle sexually abuses her but her granddad’s reaction to her playing as a child — “Forward rolls in a skirt. It’s disgusting. Underwear on display. How is she supposed to be a child?” — makes it clear that she’s always going to be read as a sexual object.
In Firebird, the price of a young woman is booze, cigarettes and chips.
Tragically, both plays imply that little help or support is available for these two young women, with Firebird making this horrifically clear. When policeman Simon (Phaldut Sharma) interrogates Tia, he demands details of what has happened and watches her struggle to articulate it.
Impressively, Sharma plays both AJ and Simon and it’s a clever doubling — as Tia’s interview with Simon progresses, it becomes clear that he is using the same tactics to ingratiate himself that AJ used when grooming her.
Both plays are anchored by striking performances from the two female leads. Cook, as Tia, vibrates with a nervous and traumatised energy. Watching her stumble through her awful experiences and anxiously bite at her thumb as she tries to makes sense of them is harrowing.
In A Girl... Aoife Duffin is extraordinary too in the range of her physical, vocal and facial expression as she makes the distinctive and seamless shifts between multiple characters and her characterisation of the Girl astutely captures her feelings of pain, bravery, need and love.
Housing all the people who have abused her in one body, she is at one and the same time her viciously judgemental mother as well as herself, always also her abuser or the men who beat her. We never get to hear her name because, as she laments at the end: “My name is gone.” These plays are certainly upsetting but, vitally, they remind us of the horrific outcome of our apparent inability to see young women as anything other than sexual objects.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing runs until March 23, box office: youngvic.org and Firebird runs until March 19, box office: trafalgar-studios.co.uk