The main reason to see Haunted, Edna O’Brien’s talky play about dreams and dreamers, is the performance of Brenda Blethyn. The actress brings fire and emotional depth to Gladys Berry, a hard-working middle-class Englishwoman tending towards stoutness, whose history appears undistinguished, as recounted by her layabout husband, Quincy Berry (Niall Buggy). O’Brien’s work is structured as a memory play. In it, Quincy recounts his youth and his dreams of escaping his dreary upper-class life with Gladys, whom he met in a pub, and whose staunch working-class background didn’t fit in with that of his wealthier family. But that is all in the past. Quincy now has other fish to fry. Or at least it seems so. The aging ladies’ man has lured a young, shy woman named Hazel to his home. Hazel wants to purchase a 1920s dress, and Quincy has one for her—but it’s his wife’s garment. The play charts the growing infatuation of Quincy with young Hazel, whom he enlists as a speech teacher for himself and whom he rewards with more clothes. Buggy’s performance, though, doesn’t really provide much juice for the situation, since O’Brien’s dialogue contains a lot of pretentious, “What was it the poet said?” quotations, including Othello, Plato, and Russian poet Alexander Blok (1880–1922).
These interludes, while helping to define Quincy’s educational background and his character as a Miniver Cheevy–style dreamer, also carry a feeling of literary showing-off and time-wasting. And occasionally Quincy’s stream-of-consciousness dialogue about his youth and family doesn’t translate easily to an American ear. A reference to “saddle of hare and Diplomat pudding” will probably leave U.S. audiences, even Anglophiles, baffled. And Quincy’s declaration that he never knew Gladys’s age—“never knew whether she was older or younger than me…hid her passport…never clapped eyes on it”—is implausible and baffling. (Much of his dialogue is also written with a choppiness that becomes exhausting to listen to.)
On the plus side, Blethyn provides an emotional gateway to the work as the hardworking breadwinner who is cruelly betrayed by Quincy. With her middle-class dreams of home, hearth, and an occasional trip abroad, she grounds the show. Gladys is a supervisor at a dollmaking factory and earns the family income while Quincy stays at home and tends his rose garden. He has even designated one for Gladys: “old blush it was called…sturdy…remarkable thorns.” Simon Hoglett’s clever clothes for Blethyn, in cream and rose colors, emphasize rose patterns as well, as do Jack James’s video projections.
Blethyn finds humor in Gladys, who’s a bit of a bully—at one point she grabs Quincy’s nose hard to demand the whereabouts of a petunia-colored coat—but full of warmth and longing for a happy marriage. When she says, “we fascinate each other,” there’s an undercurrent of sadness because of her self-delusion: one knows Quincy’s feelings no longer jibe with hers. Blethyn skillfully draws our sympathies to her well-rounded character, even when she’s behaving badly. “I let the humors get the better of me,” she says apologetically at one point—all the more touching because she’s justifiably irritated.
But Quincy’s passion and imagination have gone to Hazel, played nicely by Beth Cooke as a mousy, shy girl who gradually flowers under the green thumb of her older, gardening-mad mentor. But Hazel isn’t altogether inexperienced. She has had an encounter with a dreamer like Quincy. She describes to him a former client who hired her for tips about speaking. “He didn’t want tips,” she says. “He knew what he wanted and straight away…. He said that people thought he was not emotional, but he was, he simply had to keep it under lock and key.” It’s no accident that her description fits Quincy to a T. Yet, although Buggy does get a strong scene in Act II when he explodes in anger, and he makes the most of it, there’s little in Quincy’s character to make him feel important to a viewer.
Braham Murray’s production, nonetheless, is good at keeping the tone of bewilderment and otherworldliness swirling around this trio. Will Quincy ‘s interest in Hazel lead him to make a move on her? Will Gladys catch them? Will she discover what’s happening to her clothes? Or are all the events in Quincy’s mind? The ending proves disturbingly bleak and painful. That may be enough to draw those interested in serious theater to the journey of these characters, no matter how much unwieldy baggage they carry.