Judy Davis directs husband Colin Friels in an Irish masterpiece about a travelling showman
Faith Healer is the kind of show that won’t, on the face of it, appeal to everyone: the idea of Colin Friels playing an Irish faith healer in a Brian Friels’ play that’s comprised only of monologues suggests that you’re in for a wordy evening of scenery-chewing performance. At 110 minutes with no interval, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
But if this is your cup of tea, boy is it a good one. If you like seeing Friels chew scenery (his strong suit); if you are susceptible to plays about the human need to tell stories; if you fancy an Irish accent, and a cracking tale – you will love this show.
Judy Davis, directing her husband alongside Alison Whyte and Pip Miller, delivers a straight-shooting production that gets out of the way of the play and its language. Written in the late 1970s and considered by many to be Friel’s master work, Faith Healer is a beautifully structured and crafted quartet of monologues, by three connected characters: the ‘Fantastic Frank Hardy, Faith Healer’, his wife (or is it mistress?) Gracie, and his manager Teddy.
Friel has a great ear for spoken word, and all his characters have the gift of the gab: they’re rhetorical creatures, who one senses only exist when they are holding forth on one topic or another, to an audience – of one or many. There’s plenty of the self-lacerating and gallows humour you expect from the Irish, among more surreal delights (an episode in which Teddy waxes lyrical on the artistic temperament of his whippet Rob Roy is as funny a bit as you’ll see on stage this year).
What Frank and Gracie and Teddy say is no less fascinating than how they say it. Each character gives a slightly different version of events taking place over the course of 20-or-so years of itinerant life around rural Scotland, Wales and Ireland, spruiking Frank’s ‘faith healing’ act. Each version reveals as much about the teller as their subjects. Just as important as the “truth” of what happened between these three is their use of storytelling and language as a source of identity, a defence, and a coping mechanism.
And Friel’s evocative writing slowly and surely illustrates a series of key episodes that brought these souls together and then drove them apart. The architecture of the piece is elegant, with foreshadowing and call-and-response effects in operation across the four different monologues (not a word is wasted, one suspects). But the play never seems schematic: each character feels rich in lived experience, tangible suffering and desires – never a cog in the playwright’s machinery of plot, theme and issues.
Why a faith healer? Using this leaping off point, Friel explores what it is to have a “gift” or talent, and the necessity of faith in the face of existential angst and uncertainty. Frank Hardy’s existence seems like a constant battle between the calming influence of certainty, the dulling influence of alcohol, and the destabilising effects of his own mind at work, questioning everything. He craves an end to doubt – any way he can get it. He will go to extreme lengths to take his fate into his own hands.
A beautiful director’s note from Davis (one that reads more like a tribute than most) calls attention to several other levels on which Friel’s play can be read, in terms of his country’s social history (it premiered in 1979, seven years after the Bloody Sunday massacre, four months before nationalists killed Lord Mountbatten, and two years before Bobby Sands’ hunger strike), as well as his personal history and beliefs.
One of Davis’s greatest achievements, besides recognising this great play and doing it justice on stage, is casting three perfectly matched performers, who hold their own against each other – and, mercifully, skew likeable (when one thinks of everyone’s nightmare uncle Stannis Baratheon playing Frank in Lyndsey Turner’s 2016 revival at the Donmar, one’s soul curdles).
This is an exceptional night at the theatre.