Faith Healer (Donmar Warehouse)
Lyndsey Turner helms this revival of the late Brian Friel's 1979 play
Brian Friel, the Irish playwright who passed away last October, had a knack for quietly playing with form. Faith Healer, his most idiosyncratic piece, written back in 1979, strings together a series of monologues, reflecting on the same set of events: the life of an Irish faith healer, Francis Hardy (Stephen Dillane), and his sporadic miracles. It speaks of subjectivity, memory and external reality, and suggests that our world, as a whole, is a matter of faith.
"ONE NIGHT ONLY," holler Frank's posters. Like theatre, his travelling show lives mostly in the memory. He pitches up and takes off, leaving the audience to make sense of what they've seen – purported miracles curing the sick and disabled. Or not. Sometimes, Frank's ‘gift' works – about one time in ten. Sometimes, it doesn't. His wife Grace (Gina McKee) travels with him, propping Frank up to perform, while his manager Teddy (Ron Cook), a blustering cockney, talks him up: his sales patter is a form of preaching, instilling belief that all this is possible.
Friel lets each tell their version of events – of one miraculous performance, of one that went wrong and of a death, maybe two, maybe more – only the accounts don't add up. Faith Healer is a play of perspectives; one that asks us to join the dots and fill in the gaps. Historical events are retold in triplicate and the truth, if such a thing even exists, sits somewhere between them – either a mid-point or else an amalgamation. Each version of events illuminates the other two, in overlaps and in divergences. Each telling reveals as much about the teller as the tale itself.
Es Devlin's eloquent, elegant design maroons the characters alone on an island stage. Rain falls around them, catching the light like a wall of static interference. Beyond it, a web of straight lines criss-cross: a tangle of triangulation that echoes both the play's shape and our perspective on one another.
It's a memory play – and pointedly so. Memory is itself a kind of faith and a form of healing. We believe what we need to of our pasts and ourselves, and each character's personal reflection both justifies their actions and eases their traumas. It's Teddy that gives the straightest account of that death: a stillbirth at the side of a road that's too painful for either parent to recount.
Lyndsey Turner's production, beautifully acted, lets those characters emerge with all their frailties and faultlines on show: three gorgeous character portraits. Dillane's Frank is gently convincing. Soft-spoken and hypnotic, his hands in the pockets of his ill-shapen suit, there's something almost Corbynish about him – a man hooking people in without asserting himself, unsure how he does it or if he'll manage to do so again. He hasn't the control of a conman or the conviction of a cleric, yet, despite his shambling appearance, his sing-song speeches pull you in.
McKee's Grace, surrounded by her domestic chores, is not the barking harridan the others imply, but a downtrodden, depressive woman, and Cook's Teddy, for all the gift of his gab, betrays his own anxieties with his dependence on drink. It's a sparkling performance, Cook's: one that shows all the showmanship of salesmanship, while letting self-doubt seep through as well. He's a tough, little bloke with hands that move like a magician's, but every so often, the façade drops. We're all performing all the time, you see: all of us, acting on faith.
Faith Healer runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 20 August 2016.