Faith Healer

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Brian Friel’s masterpiece about a man with an unreliable gift was once called a ‘non-play’. It’s not the sexiest poster quote, but you get what the critic meant. ‘Faith Healer’ is formed of four monologues, spoken by three characters whose lives are inextricably linked but who never meet on stage. In Lyndsey Turner’s production, which contrasts period props with a stark modern set, each monologue is further boxed in by a curtain of rain. It’s as hypnotic as the ensuing cascade of language.

We may not see any interaction. But the characters’ memories are endlessly crisscrossing, cutting a crooked path towards the showdown in a pub in County Donegal. First we meet Frank, an Irishman who’s spent a lifetime vanning it round the British Isles to heal the sick – or not heal them, as the case more often was. It’s a masterfully unhurried performance by a wild-haired Stephen Dillane, last seen dallying with supernatural forces as Stannis Baratheon in ‘Game of Thrones’. You’re charmed by his crumpled magnetism. You’re sympathetic, as the playwright himself must have been, to a man cursed with unpredictable artistry.

But partner Grace, recovering from a terrible trauma in a London bedsit, introduces new angles. As she recalls life on the road with this charismatic charlatan, she contradicts elements of his monologue. She’s constantly revising her shading of his character, too. Frank was ‘a man in complete mastery’, ‘a twisted man with a talent for hurting’, ‘an artist’. Gina McKee is a little too cool and composed to convince as someone who was ever in thrall. Instead she conveys the paleness of a woman who feels she has become ‘one of his fictions’. She revisits her own memories ‘like a patient going back to solids’.

The penultimate monologue belongs to Frank’s cockney manager, Teddy, whose absurdly comic tales from the (bagpipe-playing) dog-end of showbusiness peter towards more momentous disclosures. Ron Cook is fantastic as the third point of the triangle – the witness to, and custodian of, all the damaged love.

'Non-play' my arse, frankly. Friel, who died last year, gave a very Irish value to storytelling: it’s not the action but the recounting of it that matters, not the event itself but the story it seeds. The words themselves teem with dramatic action in Turner’s suppley spoken production. Meanwhile designer Es Devlin draws attention to the dramatic form by bordering the stage with a litter of intersecting metal poles. It looks like a huge game of pick-a-stick, a nice metaphor for the instability of memories. You can’t take up your own story without dislodging all the others.


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