Haunted (Manchester Royal Exchange, May 30th 2009)

Jack (Niall Buggy) and Gladys (Brenda Blethyn) have been married for many years, and one day while Gladys is at work, a young woman, Hazel (Beth Cooke) knocks on the door and Jack begins an obsession, which ends in tragedy for all three characters. Hazel is invited back, and when she visits, Jack gives her his wife’s most treasured possessions.

For those who know the stage at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, they will know that it is in the round. When the audience enters the auditorium, they are confronted with a small living room with a few chairs and a doll on a swing in the Berry’s flat. The sense of looking into an enclosed world is an important element in the viewing of Edna O’Brien’s Haunted. The set is part of the rawness of the theatre itself. You can see the actors entering and exiting and just make out through frosted screens the actors making their changes off stage. I felt that blurring between the fiction and reality is played out in the play itself.

At the beginning of the production, the two women, Hazel and Jack’s wife Gladys stand on a revolve which transports them round the edges of the living room as if they are images of ghosts set before Jack. The white wedding dress worn by one woman is contrasted with the white surgical gown and cap worn by the other. The figures feel like two visions of the same women and this sense of just not quite knowing something is there throughout the play. We are aware at the end of the play that this is a retrospective scene, but it sets up the feel of the production from the start.

It is never clear where, or when, the play takes place, though we are given some sense of the place and atmosphere through character’s dialogue. Edna O’Brien wrote in the programme, “I first conceived of a room not in the hub of the metropolis of London, but on the outskirts, on the fringes, that physical metier reflecting the life and aspirations of the three characters”. The characters talk about the being on the outskirts of London, but as the audience are only taken to the flat of the Berrys and the seaside with Jack and Hazel. The play deals with the texture and feel of possessions and about how relationships can be seen this way as well. Towards the end of the play, Gladys wears a stunning coat and dress set with a large rose pattern which make us think of the flowers in the garden that at times is projected onto the stage. Yes, there isn’t the smell of tomatoes just before they become ripe, but we feel it and understand why this is such an important image for Gladys at the end of the play. Tastes and smells are important such as the taste of Madeira wine. Gladys is always smart, wearing her heels and coming home from work at the doll factory looking unruffled, but as the audience underneath she is struggling to cope with pressures of life and work. Jack has a delight in language as well, repeating Hazel’s elocution verses like a child delighting in the challenge and sounds. There are constant references to Shakespeare especially Hamlet and Ophelia. It isn’t surprising that Hazel goes mad like Ophelia, maybe her confusion about her relationship with the father figure she clearly relates to.

It’s the emotional betrayal which is so shocking in this play, when it is Gladys who goes out to work, so Jack can stay at home. Jack had been with other women, so infidelity wasn’t new in this relationship. Jack pretends he has cancer, but he is the route of the emotional cancer in his relationships with his wife and the Hazel. Gladys feels that reading has no function if Jack can’t get a job. Her speech at the end of the play about the problems of dreaming shows her frustration with Jack as well as her anger. Brenda Blethyn makes this role work so well and uses her whole body to convey her emotion through the production. Her facial expressions, the way she stood conveys her broken heart and sense of betrayal when she gave her husband more chances. The end is just so sad. Is Hazel like the doll that overlooks the set throughout? Each doll made in Gladys’ factory has its own personality, determined by the way the eyelashes are stuck on. I think Gladys is also the doll who looks on and can’t really change things.

There are gasps from the audience when Gladys appears at the door towards the end of the play. In this play, there are elements of the farce genre. I discuss farce in my blog when I talked about Boeing Boeing. The fairground ride reflects the opening scene and at the end, rather than just going round and round and in and out like a stage farce where the boy does get his girl the lives of the characters are truly destroyed.

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