Judy Davis directs husband Colin Friels in an Irish masterpiece about a travelling showman
National stereotypes almost always contain the germ of truth, and surely few national stereotypes are as enduring as the Irish gift of the gab. If storytelling were an Olympic sport, the Irish would take out the gold every time. Playwright Brian Friel understood the inherent musicality of the Irish brogue, but he employed it in a way that underscored the pain and heartbreak running just under the surface of the tall tale. He eschewed romanticism in favour of something sadder, something more deeply in touch with ruin and longing.
Faith Healer is about storytelling; the stories we tell other people and the ones we tell ourselves. Frank Hardy (Colin Friels) is the spiritual magician of the title, a travelling salesman of the soul. He positions himself and his talent between the extremes of genuine seer and outright conman, and the play never lets us settle on either interpretation. In fact, this idea of interpretation, of the ways in which individual truths can differ and still be true, lies at the heart of the piece.
Frank is the showman, but his wife – or is it mistress? – Grace (Alison Whyte) and manager Teddy (Paul Blackman) are the backbone and casual whipping posts of his talent and its falling off. Vehemently alcoholic, darkly suspicious and inconsistent, Frank drives through their lives like a careening lorry. It’s awful, but also enlightening; the sense that he enriches as well as obliterates is one of the great ambivalences in the text.
The play is technically made up of separate monologues, the actors never appearing together on stage, but the effect is quite different: Friel’s textual resonances, his subtle but unmistakable variations from account to account, build a palpable sensation of dialogue, an interconnectivity that simultaneously belies and enforces each character’s testimony. Are Grace and Frank husband and wife, as she and Teddy claim? Who exactly was responsible for the choice of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as a warm up song? More disturbingly, what exactly took place in that pub in Ballybeg and how does it relate to the miracle in a Welsh village years before? Time and place shift disconcertingly, uncannily, just as they do in real life.
Judy Davis directs with excoriating precision: no movement, no sweep of an arm or thrust of a pelvis, is wasted or accidental. The performances she elicits, as a result, are positively statuesque. Whyte is at the height of her emotional powers as an actor, and her Grace is delicately wracked and broken, leaning in to a final resolution she can’t quite bring herself to make. Blackwell, who took over the role of Teddy at short notice (from Pip Miller, who was in the premiere season at Belvoir St in Sydney), is wonderfully blithe and poignant as the man caught in the pincer of professionalism and intimacy. Friels, as the slowing heartbeat of the play, is nothing short of revelatory; charismatic and cruel in equal measure, he never lets us settle on a single aspect of the role. The melancholy and the spark, the narcissism and the terror, electrify his whole being. He manages to hit the high tragedy of Friel’s prose without in any way sacrificing the squalor running underneath. It’s far and away the best thing the Sumner theatre has seen him do.
Brian Friel was one of the last true poets of the theatre; his glorious power with language as an incantatory device has yet to be surpassed. As with Beckett, it’s rare to hear non-Irish actors grapple so confidently with the material. He makes theatre that leaves little room for compromise; Brian Thomson’s spare but beautifully evocative set, Tess Schofield’s precise costumes and Verity Hampson’s delicate lighting design all contribute to an exactitude that the script requires. It may be fashionable to bag the major companies as being out of touch or staid, but theatre this fine, this pulsing and piteous, is worth seeing in anyone’s language.