Critically acclaimed for good reason, this is a play that holds greatest appeal to theatre purists. Featuring four monologues and a running time that is a shade over two hours without interval, it is a drama that arrives at The Sumner after an award-winning season at the Belvoir in Sydney.
It focuses on the life and times of the so-called faith healer, Francis Hardy (Colin Friels), who takes his dog and pony show from one one-horse town to another, usually to small crowds or no crowds. More often than not nothing happens, but then there was the time he cured all 10 people in the audience suffering from a range of maladies, some particularly severe. A philanderer, he and his wife Grace (Alison Whyte) fought constantly and yet, clearly, he was the love of her life. Hardy’s manager Teddy (Paul Blackwell) was witness to all this for a couple of decades and some of what he saw was hardly pretty. Hardy could be a real bastard. All of them – Francis, Grace and Teddy – have more than a passing interest in the bottle.
Faith Healer is about reflection, memories – real or imagined – and unrealised ambition. Of course, people can have different recollections of events and certainly put their own interpretation on them. It has a mythic quality to it, along with the drama of Gaelic folklore and is considered to be Irish playwright Brian Friel’s masterpiece. It was written in the midst of The Troubles in 1979 and reflects upon identity and a sense of place.
Director Judy Davis (who, incidentally, directs her husband Friels for the third time) says all three characters are outsiders … itinerants. They trawl through the dying Welsh and Scottish villages in Britain’s Celtic fringe in search of audiences. The stage is bare but for six chairs (representing a potential audience for Francis) for the first act and a small table, atop which sits a bottle of plonk, in the second. Francis and Grace have separated and she is speaking from a bedsit in London.
In the third act, Teddy gives a colourful account of life on the road. His only accoutrements are that same table from the previous act, now sporting a gramophone, and a large leather briefcase containing five bottles of ale, which he downs in quick time from a tankard while weaving his tales. Then Francis returns for one final salvo – only he and a single chair, upon which is draped an overcoat.
The backdrop is a surfeit of clouds, lit is varying hues depending upon the mood of the piece. The biggest positive I took away from Faith Healer was the acting, which is first rate – polished, nuanced and, yet, still naturalistic. Friels’ reciting the names of some of the villages and towns he has encountered is haunting and poetic. And, make no mistake, there are revelations and insights, as the piece unfolds. Nevertheless, it is a big ask for us to sit there for the duration without an interval. An hour in, after Francis and Grace have had their say, a break would have been in order.
A lot of words are spoken, but I switched off from time to time because I found the verbiage overwhelming and, on occasions, not all that captivating. Undoubtedly the most amusing anecdotes are delivered by the long-suffering manager, whose minutes of levity succumb to a darker tone later. Faith Healer is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 8 April 2017.
* I saw the first preview performance of Faith Healer.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television