Featured photo- Colin Friels as Frank Hardy. Pic by Brett Boardman.
This is a serious and challenging play. It runs for nearly two hours without interval and consists of four monologues that go roughly for half an hour each. This demands an enormous of concentration on part of the actor and a great degree of acuity of focus on the part of the audience member. If you haven’t had a good night’s sleep, or enter the theatre with a mind full of distractions, or even not attend to your physical needs you will not fully appreciate this play.
The play tells the story of a Faith Healer named Frank Hardy (Colin Friels) purveying a snake oil act of laying on healing hands trailed by his dysfunctional ‘family’; Grace – his long suffering wife/mistress (Alison Whyte) and his manager, the ever optimistic Ted (Pip Miller).
Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) wrote this play during the troubles in 1979 when families were in tremendous stress. This family is under the stress of a barely subsistence, nomadic lifestyle, playing in decrepit halls and dingy churches in the poor backlots of Scotland, England and Wales and finally back to Ireland where Frank was born.
The storm clouds painted across the two back walls emphasise the turbulence and threatening storm ready to engulf the characters lives – a perceptive set by one of Australia’s prominent set designers, Brian Thomson.
Colin Friels introduces himself and is self aware that as a Faith Healer he is probably a charlatan but his sporadic successes such as one where he cured all ten people in his audience which sustained him in ‘his profession’. He praises his wife’s loyalty and endurance and his manager Ted’s perspicacity. Friels is a commanding presence as Frank, maintaining his Irish accent throughout and seemingly enjoying wrapping his lips around those complex sounding Celtic villages that he and his troupe visit.
In a Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film) like reaction which permeates this play, Grace sees her life her relationship with Frank differently. His heavy drinking causes her anguish and she laments the misery of her life. Ted (Pip Miller) contrasts Grace’s grim character with a light-hearted, humorous and Pollyanna like observation of the relationship between Frank and Gracie. Soft shoe shuffling to a crackling vinyl record of Fred Astaire singing The Way You Look Tonight, Ted wryly notes that this is the theme music for their show and the way that hopeful supplicants look with deformed limbs and faces is an ironic counterpoint to the song. Despite being hopeful such a harsh reality even ‘hits’ Ted.
It was only in this monologue and the way in which it depicts events in an elliptical fashion that I realised that each monologue was providing us with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and with this realisation the play really took off for me. In the final monologue Frank puts all the pieces together which portray an utterly tragic picture.
I found that many of the things that Gracie said were incomprehensible to me as I did not realise at that stage that she was providing the early pieces of the jigsaw. Alison Whyte performed with passion Gracie’s despair and anguish but the fact that her performance had to be just doom and gloom meant that she was not able to engage with the audience at the level of the two other actors who had humour as well as disappointment to work with.
Pip Miller as Ted was a revelation to me. Playing a sort of Shakespearean wise fool, Miller, like many of Shakespeare’s fools, steals the show.
Tess Schofield’s costumes effectively portray the poverty of the characters.
Director Judy Davis, directing hubbie Colin Friels for the third time, wrings out every nuance of emotion and infuses the monologues with light and shade.
This is serious theatre inhabited by a densely themed play. When it was first shown in 1979 it opened to mixed reviews but over the years it has rightly become regarded as a masterpiece.
The season of FAITH HEALER runs upstairs at Belvoir Street until 27 November 2016.