Haunted

Edna O'Brien
Manchester Royal Exchange production
Theatre Royal, Bath, and touring
(2010)

Production photo

Manchester Royal Exchange are coming to the end the tour of their 2009 production of Edna O'Brien's ethereal play, Haunted.

This is an achingly affecting story of life, love and regret; of marriages made and broken. It's richly textured; a beautifully written, entirely haunting piece.

In essence this is the story of the trials and tribulations of Mr & Mrs Berry, characters O'Brien first conjured up for a television play almost fifty years ago, but whom she now revisits, "contriving their different dances against a gnawing loneliness".

Mr Berry (Niall Buggy) is an ageing dreamer. He stays at home with his collected works of Shakespeare and his love of Keats and cooks dinner - when he remembers to put the stew in on time. He is an incurable dreamer, as resolutely encamped in his memories as he is in his corduroys and cardigan.

His wife (Brenda Blethyn) walks the precipice of the lonely, jilted wife. She clings to her marriage for all her worth: in love with the memory of the passion they once shared, she clings to the false hope that a much-anticipated holiday will right all her marital wrongs.

Part of the gulf between them, we learn, has been the loss of the child Mrs Berry was never able to carry to full term. She cradles the doll she spends her working life making at a doll factory as she tries to go through the motions of living life on the "median": fighting the extremes of depression and manic over-exuberance.

Into this maelstrom of a marriage comes the delicate figure of Hazel (Beth Cooke). This fragile young girl, who runs a lace stall and teaches elocution on the side, bewitches Mr Berry. He nurtures a friendship of sorts with her, having her make regular visits to read the Bard with him and taking her on a trip to the seaside. All the while, he bestows her with gifts of his wife's most treasured possessions: antique costumes and family heirlooms from her wardrobe.

He tells Hazel his wife is dead. But Mrs Berry is alive and kicking, and proves herself all too acutely aware of her husband's shenanigans. In revenge, she sets up a trap in which all three of the characters become horribly ensnared.

But everything about the text, the performances, the lighting and the design points to the fact that all is not as it seems in this piece. Nothing is naturalistic. No-one talks quite how they ought. Nothing looks entirely real. The walls are an algae-covered green glass; the front door is Perspex. The lighting makes spectres of them all. At least one of the characters is clearly dead - but which one? Or perhaps they all are?

In the end, it perhaps matters less whether the characters are alive or dead. This is a memory-poem; a study of betrayal, deception and a lifetime of regret. O'Brien weaves a hauntingly affecting web of broken dreams, shattered lives and lost hope.

Simon Higlett's design is beautifully evocative and the cast of three are mesmerising. Certainly this won't be to everyone's taste: don't expect entirely realised characters or neat resolution of plot by the final act. These characters are more conjured-up than fully realised; apparitions. They are, after all, the product of the unreliable memory of the introspective Mr Berry - a dreamer. But this is an extraordinary piece of writing, which achieves on stage precisely what O'Brien says she hopes it will achieve: "theatre for me conjures up magic".

Runs at Bath Theatre Royal until March 20th

This production was reviewed by David Chadderton in Manchester and by Ian Hill in Belfast

Reviewer: Allison Vale