Marriage and the shattering betrayals that can sometimes unexpectedly strengthen them are the theme of Haunted, award winning Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s play now showing at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the show’s legendary writer and its stars.
In marriage all is perceived though much is withheld, writes Edna O’Brien in her wise and witty play Haunted, now showing at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. It’s exactly the kind of hard-won, tell-the-truth observation that her new play is filled with, making for a particularly absorbing night out.
But O’Brien’s own life has been so eventful and fascinating that it’s as though she lived it to become an ideal subject for a biographer herself. She’d probably bristle at the suggestion, but the fact is she often found herself front and center of so many of the social changes that have engulfed Ireland since the late 1950s.
In the 1960s she caused a sensation in Ireland when her debut novel, The Country Girls, dared to present a full and frank depiction of the everyday trials and tribulations of young Irish women. For her pains O’Brien, who hails from Tuamgraney, Co. Clare, was rewarded with a book burning led by her local parish priest, with enthusiastic help from the rural community she grew up in, which rejected her soundly.
Soon after O’Brien moved to London, where she has lived on and off ever since. And although she has long since put the experience of those early days behind her, she must have been marked by the philistine pieties of that hypocritical era.
This month O’Brien returns to the New York stage to present a work that’s unlike just about every other novel or play she has written. For a start, Haunted is set in England and it features exclusively English characters -- something of a first for this award-winning writer.
The pay-off for the creative risk O’Brien takes in stepping outside of her usual Irish boundaries is that she’s written what may well be her most accessible play ever.
The play opens with Mr. Berry (Irish actor Niall Buggy) remembering his late wife and all of the secrets that the pair kept from each other throughout their long and mostly very happy marriage: “Never knew her age, never knew if she was younger or older than me, hid her passport, never clapped eyes on it,” he says with laughter and admiration.
And when Mrs. Berry finally arrives onstage, played with all-electric intensity by the mesmerizing Oscar nominated British actress Brenda Blethyn, we instantly understand why she has fascinated him all his life.
Mrs. Berry’s a live wire, full of fight and flights of fancy, even in middle age. She’s a woman who commands attention and knows how to hold it, and in Blethyn’s hands she’s the center of the play.
In fact, O’Brien reveals how Mrs. Berry’s remarkable eloquence is in some ways her revenge on her otherwise drab world of hard work, and her heart’s response to the disappointing ordinariness surrounding her, and all the accumulated regrets that come with it.
As the play progresses, though, we realize that each of the characters expend on language a sensuality that’s entirely lacking in their lives. Words can heal, O’Brien reminds us, but they can also hold at bay, and her characters often seem to use language to prevent them from connecting, or from really saying what they think or feel.
But everything changes when young Hazel (Beth Cooke) comes into their lives. With her beauty and youth she’s a reminder of their own lost potential, and her presence disrupts their routine almost from the moment she first appears. She’s also a poignant reminder that the Berry’s marriage is a sexless one.
“It has very much to do with the loss of childhood and the loss of the child within oneself,” Buggy tells the Irish Voice. “In a way, in order to be able to appreciate language the way Mr. Berry does, you have to have a certain child like quality. He does have that. But the young girl reminds him of his old self, and she brings him to life again.”
The awkwardness and embarrassment of a much older man becoming infatuated with a young girl drives the action of the play and ignites the suspicions of Mrs. Berry, who is amazed by the sudden change in her husband’s mood.
“I believe he does love his wife very much,” says Buggy. “Their relationship has endured for many years. And although he doesn’t have what we call in Dublin cardinal knowledge of the young girl, he does love her, too.
“It’s about loss, really. What we lose in life. When those doors close, they close forever. I just feel very privileged as an actor to play this role as best as I can.”
Blethyn is also clear about why she wanted to appear in Haunted.
“It was the language of the play itself -- in an age where we’re reduced to texting and abbreviating ourselves -- to open this script and see the feast of language there was the first thing that sucked me in,” she said.
“It just reaches much further into the psyche and the heart, and the characters are able to express themselves more fully and more honestly. The challenge was to do that naturalistically and for it not to sound odd, and I think we’ve achieved that,” she says.
“Of all the plays I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a lot, this one provokes the most after play discussions. It’s fascinating to see where people’s sympathies lie when the play ends.”
Meanwhile, O’Brien herself is gratified by the play’s success, even before it opened.
“I’m a little nervous, a little exhausted, but a little hopeful too,” O’Brien tells the Irish Voice, referring to the enthusiastic response the play’s been getting from the audience.
O’Brien also makes no apology for the language of the play, which she admits is heightened.
“What I find very depressing in modern times is the flatness and banality of language. In the play the heightened language is mixed in with ordinary language. Mr. Berry is a dreamer. He wises he has been a poet. His interest in language has had an influence on his wife.”
What happens to the characters, without giving the plot away, is shocking, but in a way that’s to be expected, O’Brien suggests.
“In my opinion wherever there’s love, in certain types of characters, there’s madness,” she says.
So when Hazel enters their lives as an unwilling catalyst she unmasks the hidden dreams and longings that the Berrys (and of course, we the audience) carry with them.
“Mr. Berry does love Mrs. Berry, even though he’s faithless. He wants his youth again, just like I want my youth again, and I know we’re not going to get it,” O’Brien says.
“The only way I can get it now is by writing about it. And the three actors are absolutely flawless in how they inhabit their parts. I’m just astonished at how well they’re doing it.”
In Haunted, the image of a door closing surpasses any language, O’Brien says.
“It’s a precise and poignant and final image.” Blethyn agrees. “In a way the play is a woman’s fantasy, to catch out your husband in an affair, to prove to yourself that you’ve been right all along about him.”
But the tragedy of that is that it just destroys everything too.
“I have to know what’s in your heart,” Mrs. Berry pleads.
But of course he never answers. Eventually she says, “It’s all right, if you don’t want to tell me that’s all right.”
“And even after all their heartache they still get together again, and are getting along fine, the norm kicks in again and it’s all so tragic,” says Blethyn, erupting in knowing laughter.
For tickets and showtimes for Haunted call 212-279-4200.