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Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in Association with Andrew KAY and Liza MCLEAN presents HAUNTED by Edna O’Brien in the Playhouse Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Edna O’Brien is an esteemed novelist who also writes for the theatre. A few years ago her play VIRGINIA with Ruth Cracknell and Jennifer Hagan (on the life and writings of Virginia Woolf) had a great success around Australia. HAUNTED is a ‘small’ gem of a play, redolent with language, images and observations of life of some ordinary people, who, in her hands become, momentarily, extraordinary.

“With my plays … I imagine a place where my characters get born and with HAUNTED 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 the aspirations of the three characters. I have always being interested in outsiders. They are yearners, their dreaming the conveyance to ‘the topless towers of Ilium'”.

Mr Berry (Niall Buggy) living in an apartment is haunted by two women of his past. His wife, Mrs Berry (Brenda Blethyn) who works in a doll making factory, and a young woman, Hazel (Beth Cooke),who earns her living modestly giving elocution lessons and working a small street market stall of second hand clothes. The complications that a dishonest but yearning old man gives himself and his wife becomes a gentle but multiplying anxiety for the audience.

Ms O’Brien explores love, conjuring her own great way with words and dexterously sewing text from Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill. Love binding these characters together and setting them apart, “contriving their different dances against an existential loneliness”, (I recalled the novels of Anita Brookner, as well).

“In an essay on literature, Vladimir Nabokov says there are three points from which we may judge a writer, as storyteller, teacher or enchanter, but that it is the enchanter that makes for greatness”. With HAUNTED, Ms O’Brien has made a claim for greatness – small, modest, but great. The text is a balm of gentle rich joys. Of literature, for certain.

Niall Buggy at the centre of this triangle, has the skills of “an actor”, and as I remarked the last time I saw him, in the Sydney Festival presentation of Brian Friel’s AFTERPLAY,(January, 2009) as a member of the Gate Theatre, it is an old fashioned style that draws attention to the act of ‘pretending’ rather than ‘being’ the character. But in the case of Mr Berry in HAUNTED it seems to fit, with less objection, and especially in the scenes with Ms Blethyn, it rises to an empathetic partnership that transcends my lack of belief. Ms Cooke as Hazel, the unwitting ‘Lolita’ of his fancies, does well, bringing a bewildered simpleness and innocence to the character.

Brenda Blethyn, too, has an approach to the work on stage that has, mostly, a contrived reality, but in her case it is loaded with gradually dripping buckets of warm humanity that spills into emotional explosions of anger and rage and then spectacularly, deep grieving, for Mrs Berry’s human dilemma. Ms Blethyn gives of herself, wholly in the great dramatic opportunities in the latter scenes of the play, where, in contrast, she has restrained herself earlier in dealing with the deliberately flamboyant poetic text of Ms O’Brien: “Fetch me a chair, ‘ere I faint” etc. And it is this deft contrast that catches one off-guard, surprises, and forces real respect from one while watching, and I admired her skill in drawing me in to unexpected responses of great empathy. A little, indeed, in retrospect, awestruck. I believe I was witness to great acting from a very clever practitioner.

This over-rich confection of a text by Ms O’Brien scintillates as a theatre going experience because there is much experienced integrity supporting and moulding it, with a very sensitive guiding hand from the director, Braham Murray, and a beautiful towering sea-green set design by Simon Higlett, aided by a delicate and apt video-projection design by Jack James supported by the composition of Akintayo Akinbode (Sound design by Peter Rice).

All the artistic team contribute responsibly to the ultimate success of the evening, which, cumulatively, is of a first-rate kind.

This is writing to imbibe richly in, and a performance from Brenda Blethyn you should make sure you see to put in the gentle treasures of other theatrical memories of worth.

A short season, so, be quick.