Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Faith Healer

Faith Healer - Sydney Festival 2009 - Photo by Trent O'Donnell

GATE THEATRE DUBLIN and the SYDNEY FESTIVAL 2009 present A Celebration of the Work of Brian Friel: FAITH HEALER at the Parade Theatre.

FAITH HEALER is the first of three plays that, at the invitation of the Sydney Festival, the Gate Theatre Dublin are presenting as a celebration of the work of Brian Friel, Irish playwright, celebrating, this January, his 80th year. This was the company that two years ago, in the same venue, presented a season of Beckett plays. Brian Friel is one of the great living playwrights in my reading and viewing experience. I would include with this play: LOVERS; TRANSLATIONS; DANCING AT LUGHNASA as repertoire that will stay with us for as long as there are actors, theatres and audiences. Other work is no less worth exploring.

THE FAITH HEALER was written in 1979 and has become an international classic. "The play consists of four monologues. The first and the last are spoken by Frank, the faith healer, the second by Grace, his wife, and the third by Teddy, Frank's promotional warm-up man." Each of these people have lived lives finely interconnected over the past - "Oh, years and years -" as they travelled, together, around the fringes of Scotland, Wales and England, finally, in the end, turning to Ireland, a return to home for Frank. They have lived a squalid life of theatrical skimping and brinkmanship, barely able to maintain a decent living, promoting and "performing" acts of faith healing. Sometimes it worked but most times not. This life they lead is one that they have "launched themselves into a, life compounded of squalor, fantasy and occasional transcendence."

Each of these stories invoke the great gift of the story teller. Brian Friel at his masterful best. Each one of these monologues totally enthralling. Whimsical, sad, funny, exhilarating, nerve wracking and in the end profoundly moving. Each of the characters have different memories of the same events. - "the unbelievably fickle nature of memory." Memory created to fit the needs of who the characters want to be remembered as. After each character has spoken, as they speak, the truth of the events that they have in common are altered, our knowledge of the events take on a new, different perspective." The astonishing concrete and and exact flood of images that build up through the interwoven accounts of Frank, Grace and Teddy are inconsistent, yet convey a terrible authenticity. If the facts are disputed, the emotional accuracy rings violently true." One is profoundly shaken and moved during, and accumulatively at the end with Frank finding peace and transcendence, moving to a terrifying choice where he knows at last: "At long last I was renouncing chance."

Here is a play and production that is almost the antithesis of THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Here the tools of a playwright are exercised: words, action, silence. For this playwright (and director) words are at the core of the theatre. Words that are shaped in order and rhythm, to be spoken by an actor to an audience. Words that are meant to be liberated for the audience, words for public utterance to proclaim a wisdom. A commune of language for the imagination and the emotions of each individual audience member to identify with and measure their life. The experience of the play, for me, was a faith healing: it gave me a confidence about being human. It felt quietly dignified to be who I am. Strange magic. A great act of faith given to me.

The playwright in the program notes places the Actor as the next essential for the experience of the theatre. He writes for the actor, who needs to be scrupulous with the text, who can intuit the actor's self in the writer's words and the characteristics of the character and through trust and skill be suffused in them: "so that they will finally emerge neither quite what the author wrote, nor what the actor is, but a new identity that draws from the essence of both."

Owen Roe as Frank, Ingrid Craigie as Grace and Kim Durham as Teddy are such actors. The understated unease of Frank, a shaman and a liar with a magical way with words is deeply attractive but deeply troubling. Grace is dignified and defiant in the tortured life choices she has made and we lean a wary hand to her but withhold with a fear of injuring her with touch. Teddy is belovedly rascally and devoted and reliable and foolishly in love with a great deal of his squalid world - an optimism that infects us with hope for survival however bare or paltry it may appear to us to be. These actors give us this, with confidence, delicacy and great understated skill. Wonderful to hear and watch. There is something tribally basic about the writing and the playing - a simple relatively unadorned trust in the power of using words to tell a story. Just that and us.

The director, Robin Lefevre, (who many years ago directed Martin Shaw and Angela Punch-Mcgregor in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the old Her Majesty's many years ago) has with his designers, (Design, Liz Ascroft; Lighting, James McConnell; Music and Sound, Rebecca O'Mara) kept a restrained guidance on the proceedings and reveals the jewel, that is this play.

This is a deceptively simple play that carries a great impact. Do go. A production that puts the words first and reveres the actors and respects the audience.

Playing now until 1 February. Book online or call Ticketek on 1300 888 412.

2 comments:

may-brit said...

Kevin writes eloquently about the wonderful language of The Faith Healer. I agree, beautifully written. But I - and everyone I spoke to on opening night - did not believe in Frank's character as played by Owen Roe. No geniality, no sense of magic, not an ounce of charm or charisma, and so the play's premise disappeared in the first act. An audience has to fall for him like Grace and Teddy did, fall into his story, believe he can heal you despite knowing he can't, the way you did with Ralph Fiennes in the New York production, or there is no play. Sydney Festival tickets have not been selling as well as the Festival had expected. It's not the economy. It's word of mouth.

maybrit

David said...

I agree with maybrit: I didn't fall for the healer, so remained a 'superior' observer to the deluded characters. But I think the play has another problem: it's really a radio play put on stage. With the exception of the manager's steady (and deftly executed) boozing, there was almost happening visually.