sat 20/12/2014

Faith Healer, Bristol Old Vic | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Faith Healer, Bristol Old Vic

A gripping revival of Brian Friel's late-20th-century classic

Finbar Lynch as 'the fantastic' Frank Hardy, Brian Friel's faith healer
Finbar Lynch as 'the fantastic' Frank Hardy, Brian Friel's faith healer

Theatre, particularly tragedy, can pack a terrific punch when things are kept simple – even if the themes evoked are enfolded in layer upon layer of complexity. Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, a play with three characters, each of whom takes to the stage alone, explores in a multifaceted way the life of an itinerant Irish healer who plies his trade along the backroads of the Celtic fringes of Britain.

It is as much a meditation on the business of moving the spirit and effecting spiritual and physical change in an audience as it is a complex exploration of the shifting borderline between fiction and truth.

This play is all about the actors and the way in which they engage the audience. Much as a faith healer has to open the hearts of those who come to him, desperate for the restoration of wholeness, the actors in Friel's play have to create a magical bond with those who have come to the theatre for – well, not literally healing, but an emotional experience and, perchance, a revelation. In their own way, the three characters in Simon Godwin’s masterly demonstration of the deeply stirring potential of theatre take us on an imaginative journey that evokes from the almost autistic perspective of alcohol-hazed subjectivity a series of incidents in their lives together.

The “fantastic” Frank Hardy, healer, is played with great intensity by Finbar Lynch. There is a measure about his presence that belies the excesses and violence described later by his wife Grace and his manager Teddy. The production makes a great deal of the contrasted body language of the three protagonists, perhaps not surprisingly given that Simon Godwin trained at the Lecoq school in Paris. Although this is hardly a piece of physical theatre, the way the actors move (or not) reveals as much as their speech. Frank is played cool and charming, with the kind of control that suggests a troubled inner life. He is the archetypal wounded healer, but he does not wear his vulnerability on his sleeve: it works in hidden ways, eliciting empathy even if it is done almost surreptitiously.

He is followed on stage by Grace, his devoted wife and helpmate. A chain-smoking, drink-dependent wreck, she talks of a life miscarried, casting a very different light on the events introduced by Frank a few minutes earlier. Kathy Kiera Clarke brings to the role a twitchiness on the very edge of nervous breakdown, her gestures circumscribed, as if hobbled by her despair. This is hard stuff to watch, but the rawness is never histrionic or hysterical and there is something about Clarke’s tempered agony that touches deeply indeed.

Faith2The play’s second half opens with what appears first as light relief: Frank’s gangling and slightly eccentric old-school manager Teddy, played by Richard Bremmer (pictured right) plies his theatrical sales talk to seduce the audience. Teddy is a tragic clown, funny when he talks of his former charges, not least an incredible bagpipe-playing whippet. Once again, movement maketh the man, and Bremmer uses his long arms and legs to express a mixture of madness and generosity. Soon, knocking back the beers to give himself courage, he plunges deeper into recalling the mystery and emotional maelstrom of the events that form the shifting core of the play.

In the final section of the play, nothing is clearly resolved, and the audience is left to put the pieces together. Although the play is composed of conflicting narratives, underlining the relativity of subjective perspectives and the way in which personal memory is censored or embellished, Brian Friel does not leave us completely bereft of meaning or coherence. At the close, Frank speaks of having experienced a momentary state of transcendence, a brief suspension of the almost solipsistic isolation which individuals create around themselves for protection. Is this just a powerful performance, the stuff of the healing artist's craft? Frank is undoubtedly a great showman, but is that all? As the lights go down, we are left guessing.

Faith Healer is a masterpiece of late-20th-century theatre, rooted in Chekhov as well as Beckett, and yet completely original. The play raises, in an experiential way, questions about the theatre, acting, storytelling and the suspension of disbelief – which is after all what "faith", and the stage, are largely about. Godwin's production, enriched by three excellent performances, expresses with deftness the richness and depth of Brian Friel’s remarkable text.

The actors in Friel's play have to create a magical bond with those who have come to the theatre for – well, not literally healing

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