FringeReview UK 2016
Faith Healer at the Donmar in Lyndsey Turner’s symphonically-pitched revival with Es Devlin’s sparse set proves it a mesmerising cage of words, softly and carefully lit by Bruno Poet. The cast, Stephen Dillane as the eponymous healer Frank Hardy, Gina McKee his wife Grace and Ron Cook as manager Teddy tell it from their slant, slant. Rupert Cross’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design operate with minimal but not minimalist flair.
Lyndsey Turner’s symphonically-pitched revival of Faith Healer at the Donmar with Es Devlin’s sparse set proves it a mesmerising cage of words, emblemized in the way Devlin’s prefatory pre-set and intermissions all featured a curtain of rain, spangling like the kind of variety act this troupe never was. When it lifts there’s either bare boards, a dingy bedsit or a comfortable living room with unceasing bottles of beer cracked open, softly and carefully lit by Bruno Poet.
The cast, Stephen Dillane as the eponymous healer Frank Hardy, Gina McKee his wife Grace and Ron Cook as manager Teddy tell it from their slant, slant. Rupert Cross’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design operate with minimal but not minimalist flair.
Friel’s masterpiece – and it broke ground that others like Conor McPherson found their voice in – is above all things about words that here conjure the invisible too, three versions of a faith healer, his wife and clear-eyed but curiously star-struck manager of twenty years.
The effect of one gift on two other devoted people describes the perennial dilemma of those living with or around creativity or obsession. Frank’s clear about it: ‘Am I endowed with a unique and awesome gift? – my God, yes, I’m afraid so…. Was it all chance? – or skill? – or illusion? – or delusion? Precisely what power did I possess?’
The monologues are delivered straight out, in two cases outside time too – you only later realize there’s been a very specific terminus ad quam for two characters, and a superb sleight where a casually strewn poster in one scene re-emerges as framed in the next.
With Frank returning at the end the four scenes enact a discernibly symphonic process of movements: Frank in the hushed opening and equally fine-tuned mysterious but explosive finale, where in-between Grace’s stasis marks the reflective andante and Teddy’s scherzo – literally joke – helters with wise-cracks into a numbed pathos.
Dillane’s voice orchestrates from a murmur with the celebrated incantation of place-names all the characters announce once, a spell, a warding-off reminiscence, an immersion into twenty years of a peripatetic living out of a broken-down van where Frank’s gift just occasionally comes when invoked and he works miracle cures. Friel’s clearly talking more than faith-healing here: Frank’s creative parallels hardly needing underlining.
‘Those were nights of exultation, of consummation… because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless […] But they persisted right to the end, those nagging, tormenting, maddening questions that rotted my life… And when they threatened to submerge me, I silenced them with whisky.’
Frank’s search for homecoming, an absolution both canceling and affirming his gift of life in both senses haunts the play.
From the scene related by them all where Frank cures ten people in a Glamorgan village, to his scenes of failure in Scotland where Grace gives birth to a stillborn child whom Frank refuses to face (he later refers to Grace unforgivably as ‘barren’) to the denouement back in Ireland, Friel charts a very deliberate trajectory round the old British Isles; though this is somewhere between about 1948-70.
Grace’s oblique take on Frank’s life is from the perspective of an after. Clearly bereft, this solicitor from a grand lawyers family now works part-time in a local Paddington library. Musing on the appalling still-birth and Frank’s reaction we understand Teddy’s key part in supporting both. McKee’s piercingly direct stare at the audience is at once both button-holing as a story-teller’s and desperate for affirmation. Here you can see McKee feels dangerously as if she exists only because Frank sees or creates her, arising out of his material, those he ministers to.
‘Even the people who came to him … came into being only because of him. And if he cured a man … a successful fiction … actually real… “Quite an interesting character that, wasn’t he? I knew that would work.” But if he didn’t cure him, that man was forgotten immediately, allowed to dissolve and vanish as if he had never existed.’
Teddy we expect to be a realist: so how fantastical his stories on the seedy side of old vaudeville really are. Are we expected to believe a dog can play such a tune, or a woman conjure one hundred and twenty pigeons (all dead in the 1947 freeze) from the gods to her on the stage? But the dog’s ‘sub-normal’ otherwise, the woman gives up when the pigeons die. They don’t understand their gift, nor does Frank.
As we proceed Teddy’s tales of pathos over the baby, turn even more personal: his sudden access of pain, lightly brushed off when that Welsh success related twice earlier turns into a brief callous forgetting of him: all the money one famer put down as payment was spent by the couple in four days without a glance at Teddy. ‘Thoughtless it was…’ and from a seedy Vaudevillian manger Cook crumples just for a moment to his loss, then picks his thread up, cracks open another beer and goes on with the show to recognize his own harrowing. It’s been suggested Cook would make a superb Archie Rice. That, with greater control and a shrewd sense of limitation, is almost who Teddy is. The most apparently light persona of the three is also the one to register sudden remembrance vividly, as pain. It is, naturally, masterly.
Dillane’s almost ghostly re-appearance (people began clapping after Cook) comes in the manner of an absolution, not least as Teddy has related, to him, a release. This act as distinct from Frank’s first appearance brings another dimension beyond questions of gift, place and turns existential. This narrative has to be seen, but having invoked homecoming before, Dillane’s Frank here recognizes a numinous and extraordinary apotheosis for himself.
‘…for the first time I had a simple and genuine sense of homecoming. Then for the first time there was no atrophying terror and the maddening questions were silent. At long last I was renouncing chance.’
It’s impossible to think of another play so imbued with the creative process that it talks – slant – of its truths in a creative language at once so profound and with a burden of its loss. That it ‘rots’ one’s life is true but there’s nothing outside it, once you’re bitten, and for others if not yourself it brings in its own benediction.
There’s less for a director to conjure with here, as it were. Friel’s deft specificity points to one dramatic irony: you can’t wrench this play, already out of time, out of its period, too. Nor can you play too much with staging, though Devlin’s shifts behind the glistering curtain prove you can change this from scene to scene.
What makes Turner’s direction exemplary is his complete trust in text and actors: Dillane brings something new to Frank: an otherworldly element slashed through with reality-checks, but never incongruously; there’s no crumpled chuckle, no jarring earthiness to upset the way Dillane focuses as if reaching out his hands and capturing his own essence in words for the first time.
McKee brings tragic awareness to underpin the disappointment. You realize there were possibilities – if her child had survived, her family not disowned her – crushed. McKee ensures Grace’s deadly calm chimes with Dillane’s Frank. There’s often an attempt at tonally contrasting these two roles after Frank’s monologue, but not here. The slow tread of character does that.
Cook edging his own tragedy with banter finally makes sense of the throwaway love he feels for McKee’s character as much as for Dillane’s. His voice seems to dip here but of course it’s as distinct as when he utters ‘thoughtless’ like the smothered wisp of a cry.
There’s a final numinous comment on this supremely orchestrated production, the best we’re likely to see of Friel’s masterpiece for the play’s time-span, about twenty years: as Frank’s character must have experienced at least once, this production rapidly sold out, not through high-tech advertising blitzes, but word of mouth.