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  • Chris O'Rourke

Faith Healer

Aidan Gillen as Frank Hardy in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling. Image: Ros Kavanagh


Faith and healing take many forms in Brian Friel's 1979 classic Faith Healer, with the two not always mutually beneficial. Faith in a charlatan. Faith in your passion. Faith that you can heal the sick. Scheduled for production in March 2020, Faith Healer finally arrives at The Abbey like its own act of faith, determined to overcome all odds. A revival set to commemorate its first Irish production at The Abbey in 1980, directed than, as now, by Joe Dowling. Over forty years on and Faith Healer proves itself remarkably robust. Friel serving up a contemplative feast as he explores the meanings we give to things, the people and ideals we place our faith in, and the desperate acts we undertake in order to find healing.

Niamh Cusack as Grace in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Ever the wordsmith, Friel's poetic slice of storytelling theatre reveals much in its telling, with the theatrical taking something of a back seat. Four separate monologues, language rich and detailing the same events from different perspectives, are wonderfully conveyed in John Lee Beatty's superlatively simple set. Resembling a barn, morphing into a living room, or bedsit; cluttered chairs piled into the corner like broken dreams. Like witness statements, monologues conflate to create a conflicting picture of the life and times of Frank Hardy, a wandering faith healer roaming the village halls of Scotland and Wales. Tired, questioning his waning gifts, becoming dependent on alcohol, Frank persuades his wife, Grace, and their promoter, Teddy, to indulge him in a kind of homecoming as he sets off for Ireland. Finding his way to Ballybeg in Co. Donegal, and to that fateful night.

Niamh Cusack as Grace in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling. Image: Ros Kavanagh

In such a minimal and focused production, performances prove to be everything. Magnifying the actors dwarfed on the Abbey's stage, evocatively lit by Sinéad McKenna. Each responding to the challenge differently. Aidan Gillen making strong, defining choices, establishing Frank in a subdued key. A shadow of his former self, almost timid in the stage's overwhelming depths until the final moment. Gone is Frank's heartless swagger, his violent, drunken energies. Gillen's Frank being past all that. Resigned to the inevitable which doesn't come calling as into which he walks with open arms. Gillen delivering a bravely understated performance in which weariness and vulnerability dominate over swagger.

Niamh Cusack as Grace in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Offering a daunting foil, Niamh Cusack's Grace, a good girl playing at being bad, loving her man as much as she hates him, is desolately wild. Using whiskey to battle inner demons and the ghosts of her respectable past. Cusack not so much working the stage as owning it. Simply marvellous as a woman realising her life, her loves, even herself, are fictions written by, and for, someone other than herself. Rounding out a divine trinity, Nigel Lindsay's cheery cockney, Teddy, risks stealing the show. If Grace and Frank suggest selfishness passing as sacrifice, their heads and hearts adrift in their own blue skies, Teddy is grounded and generous. Made superbly engaging by Lindsay in a memorable performance. The old-time promoter trying to convince himself he doesn't love as much as he does. Even as those around them are convinced they love far more than they do.

Nigel Lindsay as Teddy in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling. Image: Ros Kavanagh

To call Faith Healer a love story is to undersell it. Its tale of three outsiders, living and blinded by faith, unable to heal themselves or one another, is resonant far beyond ideas of love. Art, homelessness, living and dying; the list goes on. Friel, his picture deservedly on stage for the final curtain call, shows his genius here. Faith Healer, another of his unapologetically wordy scripts, moves slow and contemplatively. Allowing its overlapping tales spark a multitude of responses, different and richer with each passing. If you're not prepared to settle into that, Faith Healer might feel a tad long. But the loss is yours. Profound and moving, with three sublime performances, Faith Healer proves itself a perfect Christmas gift: it keeps on giving.

Faith Healer by Brian Friel, directed by Joe Dowling, runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 22.

Fore more information visit The Abbey Theatre


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