ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Brian Friel is the most enigmatic of contemporary Irish playwrights. Unlike Martin McDonagh or Conor McPherson, he has no distinctive theatrical style. Rather, in dramas such as Translations, Molly Sweeney and, the Lyceum’s latest play, Faith Healer, he flits between idioms like a dissatisfied literary alchemist.
Premiered in 1979, Faith Healer explores the complex web of truths and lies woven in the love triangle between travelling Irish faith healer Frank Hardy, his wife Grace and Cockney agent Teddy. Constructed of four monologues (the final one giving, the by now dubiously reliable, Frank the last word), it takes us into a peculiar world of dilapidated village halls in post-industrial Wales and rural Scotland where the afflicted come to Frank in desperate search of a miracle or, as the “healer” himself suspects, final confirmation of the hopelessness of their condition.
Built of retrospective testimonies, as might be given to a courtroom, a psychiatrist or a random acquaintance in the pub, the play’s uncertain narrative moves like shifting sands beneath our feet. Frank, played like a proud-but-defeated emperor by Sean O’Callaghan, is torn utterly between the confused sense that he does, indeed, have a “gift” and the soul-crushing fear that he is little more than a charlatan. Yet, even as he descends further into alcoholism, something deeper than mere charisma ties Grace and Teddy to him.
The play has been compared to Beckett’s Endgame, on account of its combination of cruelty, despondency and humanism. However, there is, both in Friel’s writing and in John Dove’s staging, a concern with temporal and geographical verisimilitude which is quite distinct from Beckett.
Rather, the monologues, in which Grace and Teddy reveal an event of Greek tragic proportions, have the sense of characters from a prose fiction stepping out from page to stage, as if in a dramatisation of short story by Chekhov (indeed, Friel’s Afterplay is an homage to the great Russian). Like Chekhov, Friel catches one unawares with the tragedy contained within his seeming banality.
If O’Callaghan is convincingly magnetic as the handsome-yet-derelict Frank, Niamh McCann is affectingly understated as Grace, while Patrick Driver is excellent as Teddy, a man out of both his time and his depth.
Once again, Dove, an associate director for the Lyceum, has brought the Edinburgh audience a drama of real substance and intelligence, staged with great confidence.
Until February 7. For further information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 21, 2015
© Mark Brown