Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Berry and Niall Buggy as Mr Berry in 'Haunted'.

Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Berry and Niall Buggy as Mr Berry in 'Haunted'.

 Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Berry in 'Haunted'.

Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Berry in 'Haunted'.

Edna O’Brien’s new play, Haunted, displays a light, comic touch. The dialogue between husband and wife, Jack (Niall Buggy) and Gladys Berry (Brenda Blethyn) swings between taut repartee and tender ritual exchanges. The writing here is sharp and forceful and the actors relish the opportunity to deliver pitch-perfect barbed lines, as when Gladys tearfully appeals to Jack and he responds that “crying was always one of your weapons.” The audience greets such lines with equally sharp laughter, recognising, perhaps, elements of their own relationships. Middle-aged couples can provide rich material for writers, and O’Brien evokes the ups and downs of the Berry’s marriage, now and in the past, as they struggle with the realities of long-term relationships. Inevitably, there are events in the past to recriminate one another for, as well as more fondly remembered moments, such as Gladys’s reverie on their first trip to Ireland, where they undertook a memorable boat trip, as she puts it, wistfully, “My girdle… in a rockpool… in Lismore.”

The play is much less successful, however, when O’Brien turns the action from comedy to tragedy. Where the comic register allows the actors to deliver lines with convincing gusto, the tragic elements are much less compelling. Jack, it seems, is quite the philanderer and gambler, and his fancy is taken by Hazel (Beth Cooke), a na├»ve elocution tutor who wanders into his life. In order to woo Hazel, Jack pretends that he is a widower, and bestows gifts on Hazel, selected from Gladys’s wardrobe. Inevitably, Gladys discovers the intrigue and is devastated, first by the pilfering of her carefully saved “treasures”, and then by the betrayal at the heart of it. The Berry’s relationship never recovers from this and, coincidentally, neither does Hazel as she suffers a kind of breakdown following the confrontation between Gladys and Jack.

Though he has bestowed gifts and money upon Hazel, Jack has never made any physical advances to her – “I never touched her” – and yet Gladys is not consoled by this fact. For her, it is “even worse” that it was a physically chaste relationship. Underlying this is the issue that really drives the play: the fear of ageing. Repeatedly, Gladys refers jealously to the young “whippersnappers” that she has to work with, and when she finally sees Hazel, it is her youth that most offends her. Gladys bemoans the loss of her own youth and the life she and Jack used to share, as she asks him, “Why don’t Solomon and Sheba go dancing anymore?” And it is not only dancing that Gladys misses, it is the entire physical side of their marriage, an absence that she perceives as a “gulf.” Blethyn directly illustrates this whenever the past is mentioned, gesturing towards the closed door of their bedroom.

Gladys’s fear of age and death, and her anger at the lack of passion in her life, are poignant and powerful emotions. Blethyn is wonderful at conveying this sense of loss, while Buggy adroitly and dancingly expresses Jack’s refusal to confront the issue. One of the play’s most effective scenes is without any dialogue, as Blethyn, devastated by discovering Jack and Hazel, slowly sobs her way across the stage, while Buggy ignores her, completely self-absorbed. And yet this scene also illustrates how the play heaps so many ideas upon the characters that the real drama is lost. The wordless power of the scene is broken by a talking doll, which bleats “mama” several times. This is meant to refer, of course, to the baby that Gladys lost twenty-eight years ago, yet is entirely unnecessary, only serving to distract from the main conflict between wife and husband.

Likewise, the set design conspires to disrupt the flow of the play: for each, unnecessarily long, scene change the lights go down and there are back projections of roses blooming, or storm clouds gathering. These become repetitive and take away from what is otherwise a spare and effective set, with a curving back wall built from green, semi-transparent panels. Musically, too, the repeated motifs of minor chords played by cello and piano are heavy-handed. Also repetitive are the frequent quotations from Hamlet and Othello, as well as constant references to Keats’s poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. These references hint at parallels between the action on stage and the literature of love and loss, but these connections are insufficiently developed and, where they are followed, as in Hazel’s ‘mad scene’ they render the concept ridiculous.

There are some very strong performances in this production and the first act, in particular, is witty and tender by turns. However, the attempt to inject tragic depth into an intimate and modest drama ultimately prevents it from doing either comedy or tragedy effectively.

Emilie Pine lectures in modern drama at UCD.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Haunted by Edna O'Brien

8 - 13 February, 2010

Produced by Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
In Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Directed by Braham Murray

Designer: Simon Higlett

Lighting designer: Johanna Town

Sound: Pete Rice

Composer: Akintayo Akinbode

With: Brenda Blethyn, Niall Buggy and Beth Cooke

Presented by Duncan C Weldon, Paul Elliot & Lane Productions