Edna O'Brien, in her youth

I suppose it’s not that unusual for presidents to go to the theater. I’m sure president Obama does. But the announcement that Mary McAleese was amongst the audience at a performance of Edna O’Brien’s newest play “Haunted” still came as a bit of a surprise to me. Then I stared thinking about the relationship between Irish theater and politics. 

It’s fascinating the way Ireland’s perception of its writers has changed. Kate O’Brien, James Joyce, John McGahern, Patrick Kavanagh, all had their work banned. However, all are now prized as some of Ireland’s greatest writers.

Edna O’Brien personifies better than perhaps any of these writers, how Irish attitudes towards writers have changed. Or to state it more simply, how Ireland itself has changed.

O’Brien has often described her childhood home of Tuamgraney, County Clare, as “fervid,” “enclosed” and “catastrophic.” She left County Clare for England but continued to write about it in novels such as “The Country Girls,” which was banned in Ireland in the 1960s.

Now that censorship has ended and Ireland is free to embrace her exiled writers, Edna O’Brien is generally celebrated and adored (though she still lives in London). Her multitude of talents as a novelist, playwright and biographer allow her to bestow gifts not only on her reading public but on celebrities as well.

That is in fact how O’Brien’s latest play, “Haunted,” now playing at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin, came into being. As the story goes, five years ago in New York, Brenda Blethyn, whose starring role on Broadway meant she had access to a limousine, offered O’Brien a ride. The two became fast friends and in exchange for the ride, O’Brien vowed to write a play for Blethyn to star in.

That play is “Haunted,” which stars Blethyn alongside English actor Niall Buggy. Inspired by her early years in England, the play tells the tale of a Shakespeare-loving widower named Mr. Berry who is “haunted” by the ghosts of two women he loved in the past. Brenda Blethyn plays his wife, Mrs. Berry, whose work in a doll shop is a painstaking reminder of her own inability to have children. The other woman is Hazel, a young elocution teacher who practices verses with him in exchange for his wife’s clothes.

Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy give first-rate performances that are both hilarious and heartbreaking. But the most interesting thing about the way that the play is written and performed is that there is no distinct line between memory and reality, perhaps alluding to Mr. Berry’s own inability to separate his fantasies from his daily life.

Even as the play ends the audience is unsure of what was real and what was imagined. Mr. Berry tells Hazel that his wife is dead, only to have Mrs. Berry appear again, insisting that she lives. In the end, Mr. Berry describes his wife’s decline into cancer and Hazel’s being institutionalized but we are unsure of whether this all happened before the play began or not. This uncertainty is what gives the play its dramatic power. O’Brien’s script walks a fine line between drama and comedy, a quality that makes her play immensely enjoyable to watch.