“He walks across a cobbled yard and smack into classical tragedy.”
I don’t suppose Glasgow’s Celtic Connections features a whippet on the bagpipes. Well, Brian Friel’s forlorn yet devout play has one. It also has an Academy Award Best Original Song, from 1936, in The Way you Look Tonight and the Troon to Larne ferry. From Ceann Loch Biorbhaih (aka Kinlochbervie) in Sutherland to Welsh Methodist halls to Donegal to digs in rundown Paddington, Faith Healer – first performed in 1980 – has evocative mileage.
It is all in the voice and the story telling and in the sad and unaccountable distance between them. Three characters explain themselves to their audience. Simples. Each in turn stands alone on stage and talks of how it was when they were together, how it is now, and how it might have been – or might have seemed. Memory is fallible. What you once thought you had learnt by heart or by experience, bitter or sweet, can be a struggle to recall. Their time is provisional. Contingent. (Go to Philip Larkin in Ambulances where ‘what cohered ..across the years .. the unique random blend .. At last begin to loosen’.) You cannot miss the tatty banner, centre, ‘Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer. One Night Only’.
We have a correlated but discrepant narrative. That’s four monologues in four scenes. Francis, or Frank, appears first and last; first, anxious to justify his billing, dismissive of rhetoric but still fervent of speech and gesture. An act, in effect, that he protests is balanced between ‘the absurd and the momentous’. And last, in an extraordinary extended coda, he is steadier, a little prouder, and with a crumpled press clipping of ‘10 Healed in Glamorgan’ he walks across a cobbled yard and smack into classical tragedy. Grace, mother of his child, loves him selflessly but suffers incomprehension and loss. She has the second scene, casting Frank as immoderately talented but possessed by his own impossible calling. Then, after the interval, there’s Teddy from down the Old Kent Road or Stepney or Bow. Breezy, enduring, big-hearted Teddy: skint impresario, dog lover, pigeon manager, fixer, van driver and bedsit philosopher. Teddy’s responsible for the ‘Fan-tas-tic’ on the banner and his exasperated, “For Gawd’s sake!” is about as Christian as this play gets. Friel, after all, dumped the priesthood.
Nevertheless, I think director John Dove is going for Frank’s miraculous redemption here. Earnest self-doubt proves definitive, more so than the poetic drifts over Loch Clash. The set may be cheerless and angular with a job lot of bistro chairs arranged left stage but then Frank is lucky if more than half a dozen of the lame or the disfigured roll up to receive his ‘gift’. The keen monologue form is necessarily upfront and in your face, as it were, but even so the acting is unusually expressive and open. Gesture is weighted. The lightest it gets is Teddy (Patrick Driver) wafting another pale ale onto the table. Frank (Sean O’Callaghan) seeks rest and certainty with dire conviction. Grace (Niamh McCann), fighting despair, is bright eyed with hope. Driver’s performance does stand out, “Dear ‘earts”, almost too much maybe, but Teddy’s bow tie and patter can do soul searching as well as the single crucifix high on the side wall and when he chokes up it is all the more compelling.
Anticipating the ignorant and hapless English soldiers of Friel’s next play, Translations, Teddy is not understood in the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag / Ballybeg. Regardless, this is an eloquent production. Admirable in fact.
(By n’ by, listen up for Translations on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Sunday 25 January at 1330.)
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 17 January)
Visit Faith Healer at the Lyceum here