Keeping the Faith
Acclaimed theatre director John Dove returns to Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre with his most ambitious work to date, Brian Friel’s great play Faith Healer. By Mark Brown
Acclaimed theatre director John Dove has been an associate artist of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum for many years. A man with a talent for staging the “well-made play”, his work for the Lyceum includes Brian Friel’s Living Quarters (2007), Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge (2011) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men (2012).
Dove’s most recent visit to the Lyceum, in May of this year, was to stage David Haig’s play Pressure, about the Scottish meteorologist James Stagg and his huge role in the planning of the D-Day landings in 1944. He returns next month directing Faith Healer, another work by the great Irish dramatist Brian Friel.
An intriguingly structured, densely written play, Faith Healer follows the story of the eponymous supposed miracle worker Frank Hardy as he travels around unprepossessing small towns and villages in Scotland and Wales. Constructed of four, often conflicting monologues – spoken by Hardy, his wife Grace, his manager Teddy, and, finally, Hardy himself again – the drama is a thriller which meditates upon the phenomenon of faith healing, the meaning of truth, the nature of memory and our relationship to mortality.
As ever with Friel’s brilliant writing, the play is full of moral ambiguities and dramatic possibilities. When I meet Dove in the Lyceum’s rehearsal space in central Edinburgh, I find the veteran director relating to the piece with characteristic enthusiasm.
Faith Healer is, he says, a perfect play for the capital’s great repertory theatre. “The Lyceum audience is a very bright audience”, he comments. “I happened to sit in the second row during Of Mice And Men, and I just felt the audience and the author communicating with each other.
“They love the big writers, particularly the challenging, literary ones. Faith Healer is the most challenging of all the plays I’ve directed here.”
Dove, who believes he benefitted from an incidence of psychosomatic (i.e. mind-over-matter) healing in relation to a serious, long-term ear condition, shares Friel’s interest in faith healing. The play does not reduce Hardy to a mere charlatan, but, rather, portrays both his self-doubt and his occasional, sensational successes in appearing to heal people.
The piece was staged, as part of a Friel trilogy, by Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 2009 during the Edinburgh International Festival. As befits its subject, it is very much a play about uncertainty (including narrative uncertainty).
“Friel understates things that are sometimes massive in the narrative line”, says Dove. “We [director and actors] have got to make sure they come out as massive, even though they’re understated in the writing.”
To think of Friel’s theatre is, I suggest, almost to think of the output of a group of quite distinct writers. Unlike dramatists such as Beckett, Pinter or Miller, Friel’s writing, although it has great skill and depth, does not alight upon a single, discernible style.
In both his interests and his dramatic approaches to them, the author is remarkably diverse. The four-monologue, fractured-narrative structure of Faith Healer is very different from Friel’s other dramas.
“He experiments in a big way in his plays”, Dove agrees. “And Faith Healer is the most experimental of the lot. It’s a glorious piece to take on, because it’s so inherently theatrical.”
Faith Healer is at the Royal Lyceum, January 14 to February 7. For more information, visit: http://www.lyceum.org.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 4, 2015
© Mark Brown