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Brenda Blethyn: Caught in the act

Brenda Blethyn is talking about how she met Mike Leigh. She'd no idea who he was, and when she went into the audition, she found that she'd be required to improvise a scene. After recounting how they had decided that she'd play a woman who was waiting for an interview, Blethyn appeared to ... space out. Her speech trailed off. She gazed blankly ahead of herself. She reached for her glass of cranberry juice, hesitated, reached again -- and I began to worry that I'd asked a stupid question and that she was disdaining to continue, or that, perhaps, she suffered from some sort of condition. After what seemed like hours of discomfort on my part, I realised that she was recreating the event -- that she was acting.

It's not every day that a two-time Oscar nominated actress just starts acting right in front of you. Far from being bored with the run of the interview, Blethyn proved to be generous and keen, talking about things that she's surely talked about to death -- like the momentous meeting with Leigh, who went on to direct her in one of those nominated performances in Secrets & Lies -- with a freshness and spark that makes one feel like the best journalist in the world.

She's in town to perform in Edna O'Brien's Haunted, opening in the Gaiety on February 4th, and this, too, is old road for Blethyn, but again, you'd never know it. The play opened in May of last year in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and the verve with which Blethyn talks about the text seems undimmed, despite the time that has passed. This may be because she had something to do with it being performed at all.

She and O'Brien are friends, and the playwright sent the play to the actress, who had other things on her plate at the time. "Edna kept ringing up, 'Have you read my play?', because she couldn't get it produced. And I thought, 'Well, you know, people keep turning it down, so ... ' -- it wasn't at the top of my priorities! But she rang so often, I thought, 'I'll read it, it's the least I can do. I said I would, and I will.' And I loved it! Absolutely loved it with a passion."

Blethyn showed it personally to Royal Exchange artistic director Braham Murray, "and he had a pile of work to do, and I just [she makes gestures that signify pushing the script on him forcefully] and he read it and rang me back straightaway, 'I love it, I've found a place in the schedule for it -- who do you want in it with you?' And I hadn't immediately thought of me in it, I was just helping her get her play on. But when he said it, I thought, 'Oh, [look of bemused surprise] Oh, [look of cunning consideration] Um, oh. Oh! [a look of delight and excitement to finish]."

The play is a three-hander, also starring Niall Buggy and Beth Cooke, in which Mr Berry, a widowed man living beneath his intellectual means in a London suburb, appears to take solace in the attentions of a young woman. Except for the fact that his wife may not actually be dead. In fact, all of the characters may be dead. But then again, they may not be. "He's remembering these people and they appear," Blethyn explains, "And then it appears to be in the present. It's so cleverly contrived. It's a play about regret, guilt, love, loss of love -- and it's funny too!"

If there's anyone who can find humour in such poignancy, it is Blethyn. Her conversation requires her whole being, and she speaks in dialogue, giving voice to everyone else related to the anecdote, she reacts to everything she says (as demonstrated earlier) with active facial expressions and gesticulations. In short, she's as much fun to watch as to listen to. Those of us on this side of the water probably know her best from her film roles -- including that of Mrs Bennett in the Keira Knightley-starred Pride and Prejudice -- but theatre is her first love, and we will get to see her give it her all on the Gaiety stage.

It is a love that she took something of a risk to consummate. Having been working away as a shorthand typist for British Rail, she found herself swept up in their amateur theatrics group. "They were entering a competition, and somebody got sick and had to drop out, and they said, would I stand in and I was" -- a look of horrified scorn -- "'Don't be so bloody stupid! Go on stage?!'" and they said it would really help them out" -- a slightly beleaguered air of surrender -- "so I did.

"The more I did, I got to play the leading parts, and you know, the more you do, the better you get, and people would say, 'You could be professional at this,' [an encore of the horrified scorn] 'Don't be so daft! Give up my good job?'" She shrugs apologetically. "I don't think I knew at the time that it was a big risk -- I knew that I could always get a job. My dad always told me, there's no harm in failing, but it was wrong not to try something -- you have to try. And if it fails, that's okay. So I thought, 'I'll give it a go.'"

Good thing. It's a treat for Dublin audiences to see such an accomplished performer live onstage, and one who has risen so high in the cinematic ranks, to boot.

None of that seems to have gone to her head, by any means; indeed, she is set to give some workshops in a school she champions in Kent, even though, once again, she was certain she wasn't able for it.

"I said, 'I know what I do, but it's another skill to be able to teach.' And they said, 'Well, you could learn that skill.' So when I finish Haunted, I'm going on a course." It would be hard to find too many Hollywood high-flyers willing to spend their time learning about how to teach their craft, but with Blethyn it seems to be all in a day's work. If she approaches acting instruction with the verve with which she handled this interview, the students who will soon be able to call her 'teacher' are very fortunate, indeed. HQ

Haunted will preview in the Gaiety Theatre on February 4th, and runs until February 13th. See www.gaietytheatre.ie for more information and booking.