Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play uses the wisdom of age to give this oft dubbed “modern masterpiece” a dark depth, comedy, and truth in flux.
Es Devlin’s stage design for Faith Healer is one of the most thrilling focal points in London theatre so far this year. It is, essentially, a water feature. Framing the stage with startling opacity is a chamber of synthetic rain that turns any semblance of the traditional Irish cottage play on its head. The three characters, Frank, the faith healer, Grace, his partner, and Teddy, Frank’s manager, speak solely in monologue, never communicating with one another. In this way, their three different viewpoints of the same events are severed by scene change, signalled by the dimming of lights and a downpour. The visual pun suggests an ominous fogging and suppression in the face of remembrance. How can we tell the fiction from the truth? Is Grace Frank’s mistress (as he claims) or his wife (as she and Teddy insist)? Was it Frank, Grace, or Teddy who insisted that Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight” be played during Frank’s healing sessions, inharmoniously so? (A less romantic aside, it must be said that the first row complained of damp seats. Just beyond, in the second row, this reviewer, her face pleasantly dewy, was taken back to her first visit to Niagara Falls.)
In Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee, and Ron Cook, this production has storytellers who know how to hold our gaze unconditionally. The sharp, searching eye contact with which all three flash unrelentingly onto the audience, from the standing seats in the rafters all the way down to the press’ circle, is akin to the “regard familier” which Walter Benjamin read in Charles Baudelaire. Translated vaguely from the French as the “familiar look” or “overly knowing,” this is the gaze that acts upon another person, but misses the intimacy of facing another being. Here, visual appropriation becomes poetic internalisation: each speaker’s purview, reconstructed through the spectacle of audience engagement, is an attempt to rewrite a shared backstory into his or her own aesthetic experience. “They speak conversationally, as though entirely unmediated by any convention and they are clearly addressing you,” states the Irish playwright Conor McPherson in the preface to the production’s catalogue. “And I’d contend that this subtle, profound, innovation melted the barriers of subjectivity in the theatre, reshaping how we experience plays and, inevitably, how the next generation of Irish playwrights wrote plays.”
The three friends, lovers, business partners, are united in their craving for the ache of affirmation. Dillane’s strategy as Frank takes on a quiet, elevated honesty that mocks itself, riddled with lyrical parenthetical asides and scabrous wit. In Gina McKee, barefoot and in a bedsit, there is Grace in her final gracelessness. But of the three, it is Ron Cook as Teddy who exhilarates. His full-blown Cockney bravura mode is one part rollicking romp, another part depersonalised, cold calculation of a manger, both running at odds with his underlying passion for Grace and his pedestalisation of Frank. “Friends is friends, and work is work, and never the twain shall meet,” he offered us (free of charge), resting his doubtful brow on the peanut gallery.
The trio of skilled performances notwithstanding, one leaves the Donmar Warehouse lacking emotional oomph (and gently misted by natural English summer rain). The ambience of the production as a whole is hazily sterile. If Frank acts as the force tugging and pulling the three of them back (his monologues open and close the play), then his proselytiser’s yarn is missing any of its necessary, irresistible pull. Still, Faith Healer as a realist drama is potentially revolutionary. It is an argument for the history of intimacy other than the one given—even if truths, lies, and the non-places of reverie are born into a world where their imminent failure is constituent of the play’s design. A year after Friel’s death, at age 86, we are reminded of what makes Faith Healer a major work of art: rarely have love and narcissism been so abundantly aligned.
By Megan René Bradshaw
Faith Healer by Brian Friel
23 June – 20 August 2016