The Faith Healer, written in 1979 by the late, and sadly missed Brian Friel, is reprised at The Donmar under the expert guidance of Director Lyndsey Turner. One of our most successful Irish playwrights has fashioned a story with no interaction between the three cast members. Instead they remember what has happened over the years, sharing these memories in a series of monologues. The only thing is that memories re-visited have a habit of becoming distorted, none more so than here. Not only that but, as with human nature as a whole, each character has a different perspective and thereby a different take on reality and each other. We, the audience, have our work cut out to distinguish the reality from the fake. But then that is a conundrum presented to non-believers coming into contact with Frank, the itinerant Faith Healer of the title.
As soon as we enter the theatre, we get the feeling that what is to follow is shrouded in mystery and sadness, inhabiting a grey rather than sunny world. This is due to Es Devlin’s clever design, for cascading down three sides of the Donmar stage is a sheet of shimmering water, both a moving stage curtain and metaphor for the cheerless venues in which Frank performs.
Stephen Dillane’s Frank Hardy, dressed in shabby overcoat and trousers just a tad too short, appears on stage at the beginning and the end of the evening. Charismatic, but with an underlying sadness, we consider his veracity. Is he a charlatan? At times, maybe, but we’re given to understand that his gift for healing is, at times, real enough, it just isn’t under his control. Perhaps this is the point Friel is trying to make; an artist’s life is unpredictable, not only in so far as the next job is concerned but also because he is always dependent on inspiration. Very cleverly, he also uses love as the one cohesive element between the three characters.
The first discrepancy comes at the beginning of Gina McKee’s monologue. Playing Grace, the Faith Healer’s wife (or is it mistress?) she talks with an Irish accent, despite Frank’s assurance that she is a Yorkshire woman. Unlike Frank’s static performance, Grace addresses us whilst folding washing in her run-down kitchen. Depression envelops her like a cloud.
The third person’s viewpoint is delivered by Ron Cook’s Teddy, Frank’s manager, and is much more upbeat. Continually getting up out of his chair to fetch another bottle of Pale Ale, Teddy’s reminiscences include tales about various vaudeville artists, including a performing whippet and various pigeons. Because of the humour and bits of business, this monologue requires a little less attention from the audience, which is something of a relief.
In fact it is the matter of concentration with which I had a slight problem. I can’t put the blame on the play, whose lyrical language is a delight, or the actors, all of whom are at the top of their game. No, the fault I am sure is sitting side on to the stage. The Donmar is a wonderful space and usually seat positions are not too much of a problem. However this play, with its lack of interchange, requires a special type of focus that is more difficult to attain when the actors’ facial expressions are mostly hidden.
In an ideal world, I would very much like to see the production again but next time in a front row pew facing the stage.