Can faith straighten a crooked finger? Several characters see it happening, but Brian Friel’s 1979 play doesn’t answer this. Instead, it sets truth to one side and ruminates on what it is to witness love, loss and even miracles, and then retell them.
It is the story of Frank, also known as The Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer. An alcoholic Irishman, he travels Welsh and Irish villages claiming to cure the sick and disabled through his gift of faith. As his results range from non-existent to spectacular, he realises that people visit him not to be cured but for confirmation that they are incurable. It is this paradox of identity that fuels the play – Frank is never sure if he is a genius or a charlatan, and it tortures him.
And Friel doesn’t want us to be sure either. His elegant script pulls our sympathies this way and that through contradicting monologues from Frank and his two companions.
Against the backdrop of a desolate, faded hall with empty chairs dotted around, director Simon Godwin handles the three magnificent actors with precision. As Frank’s long-suffering wife Grace, Kathy Kiera Clarke is captivating – tender and manic with frenetic nerves. Finbar Lynch makes us uneasy by bringing a quiet calm to Frank. By turns self-doubting and hubristic, he never quite drops the showman’s mask.
In the second half, Richard Bremmer brings poignant light relief as Teddy, the devoted English agent who gave up Rob Roy the piping dog and other such bizarre acts to follow Frank and Grace around the country. His evident love for the other two, perhaps the most realised emotion in the play, is tempered by his insistence that business and friendship should never be mixed.
Godwin’s production is understated enough to let the tensions of Friel’s script rub together. The tragedy that visits the characters should obliterate all hope of there being a God. But Godwin’s interpretation allows for heart-in-throat moments of wonder - if only at the beauty believing the unbelievable, just for a moment. When we return to Frank for his second monologue, we see him through his companions’ eyes – a crueller and yet more breathtaking man than the Frank of the opening speech. Such is the beauty of storytelling: the best ones don’t have to add up.