Haunted. Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester at the Theatre Royal Brighton. 4-3-10

Haunted is a mysterious and poetic play, an exploration of memory and the past and the resonances that they bring to the present. The writer, Edna O’Brien, shows us a long lasting marriage that is now disintegrating under the pressure of a husband’s infidelity and thoughtless behaviour and the overbearing but well meaning fussiness of his wife who has come to resent the fact that she has been the one going out to work and keep things going financially and regret the children that she never had. We are shown the platonic obsession of the husband, Mr Berry, for a lovely young girl, Hazel, as the play develops, and its consequences. Or maybe not. We are never sure whether this is a present reality or the fantasy of an elderly man looking back with nostalgic regret at his past. Perhaps it never really happened at all and the missing clothes and money which lead to Mrs Berry’s suspicion have simply been used to service his gambling debts. Looked at another way it could be something else entirely. We are never sure whether Mrs Berry is actually dead as Mr Berry claims and if she is then what we are seeing is a present day platonic affair in which a grieving widower relives his youth and finds warmth and purpose as he teaches a pretty young girl and treats her to days out and lovely clothes. It doesn’t matter. Strangely we don’t need to know for sure, as all of these roads lead to the same climactic end scene. The past, whatever it is, has to be faced up to because it remains real enough to destroy the present, whether it is an affair posing a real and present danger to a long standing relationship, an obsession from the past, or the resurgence of grief for a lost wife which destroys a feeble attempt to be happy. When you try to put it all into cold hard prose it may sound confusing but this is never true while you are watching. Mr Berry talks directly to us at the opening of the play, and afterwards, and it is always clear that we are outside time. More than anything else what comes to mind for me is TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton, one of my favourite poems.

“Time present and time past are both perhaps contained in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory down the passage which we did not take towards the door we never opened into the rose garden ”

I have no idea whether Edna O’Brien would agree with me but I think that poem sums up the effect that she was trying to achieve with this play. Since roses are one of its constant motifs I’d be surprised if it had never crossed her mind.

The writing is helped along by some terrific acting from Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy as Mr and Mrs Berry. It is very important that we believe in the emotional truth and reality of their feelings as this is all that we have to rely on at the centre of the questions which the play stirs up. Beth Cooke as Hazel has a harder job, given that her part is less developed and her character is more reserved, reacting to events and feelings rather than instigating them, but she also does very well with what she is given.

The set, by Simon Higlett, is quite beautiful, a large curving green wall of squares which is used to project moving images reinforcing those within the dialogue and an old fashioned doll in a white dress which seems to float in space on a Perspex tower. Shadows and colours are used to build atmosphere and uncertainty, and a fairground horse floats down magically when he is needed.. It is not often you see a theatre design work with such understanding of the text and add so much to the play itself, becoming far more than just a setting in which  things can happen.

This play really makes you think and I like that.


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