Faith Healer

Brian Friel's masterpiece is a rumination on his relationship with art

‘Yes: we were always balanced somewhere between the absurd and the momentous.’

It can’t be easy being an artist. You work all your life, grappling with a strange thing called a muse, knocking out work for unappreciative audiences and hoping that you are granted a glimpse of the transformative power of art that you once felt, years ago.

In Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, revived in a lyrical production by Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, Ireland’s greatest living playwright mulls over the nature of art, its agonies and small ecstasies.

Faith Healer is widely recognised as a watershed in Friel’s writing. For the writer, the 1970s were a time of experiment and flux, with Faith Healer bringing together the common themes and avant-garde techniques to create a masterpiece of language and story telling.

The later modern classics of Translations and Dancing at Lugnasa are the better-known plays, but Faith Healer was a culmination of Friel’s mastery of space and time. That this is the second major production in the British Isles in 2011 speaks to its continuing relevance.

Three characters spin out their recollections of a life lived together in an untaxed van, each giving their recollections of the road, performing in village halls, ex-Methodist churches and barns across Scotland and Wales.

First is the ‘fantastic Frank Hardy, Faith Healer’, a down-at-heal charlatan whose life has been characterised by struggle with his ‘gift’, such as it is, caught between awareness of his lies and the sense that transformation really does exist somewhere.

Lalor Roddy portrays Frank with a tired resignation, but his brilliantly controlled performance allows us to see the vast depths of fear and self-loathing under a drink soaked surface.

Next comes Grace Hardy, the long-suffering wife of Frank, played by Ali White. Grace speaks from London, to where she has escaped, working four hours a day in a library and measuring her life in cigarettes, sleep and drink. White gives us Grace as a women in tumult, who has lost the only refuge she ever had: Frank Hardy.

White’s diction and style of speech constantly seems to be on the edge of screaming, her staccato delivery holding back the agony within. Grace knows she could have left the life they lived together, but something, some supernatural belief in Frank perhaps, binds her to him, and just as Frank is nothing without the two-edged promise of his gift, Grace is nothing without Frank.

Through these two monologues we discover the untruths held within the character’s memories, as both Frank and Grace give us a wildly different version of the same event. If left there, Faith Healer could perhaps be seen as Friel’s thoughts on how Beckett would have written Terry and June, but the play’s real triumph is Teddy, the manager of Frank’s ‘show’ and as cockney as a barrow boy.

Admirably played by Rod Goodall, Teddy is a sly variety impresario, who before linking up with Frank was managing such luminaries as Rob Roy, The Piping Dog and Miss Mullatto and Her Pigeons. Teddy gives us his thoughts on the nature of a life lived in entertainment. 'Bloody artists!' he growls.

But even Teddy is discovered to be a liar, with his protestations of 'friends is friends and, as the poet says, never the twain shall meet. Okay? Okay.' His final realisation of the truth of his feelings for Frank and Grace are heartbreaking to witness, and Goodall relates the sly, desperate hardness of Teddy’s character with skill and passion.

Frank’s last speech brings the disparate narratives together as the three return to Ireland, where Frank’s struggle with his gift drags us to his final performance. In this speech, Roddy, under the light and trusting hand of Andrew Flynn’s direction, commands the whole auditorium to drag the audience brilliantly towards the freedom Frank seeks.

The last scene hammers home Friel’s ambiguous relationship with art: its lies, its mercurial nature and its seductive promise of the miracle still to come.

Faith Healer is a masterpiece, pure and simple, and in the hands of White, Goddall and Roddy, the precision of Friel’s writing comes alive. Perhaps Frank and Grace’s misery could have been leavened with more humour, as Teddy is much more than light relief, but the power of the production leaves you moved and wiser, gripped by the thought of art as a gamble, risk as a way of life.

Faith Healer runs at the Lyric Theatre from November 1 to 6.