Faith healing isn’t prescribed on the NHS as one of those alternative treatments. It is what some of us turn to when all else has failed.
Some exponents praise the lord, lay on their hands and make the blind see and the crippled walk – at least in all those US documentaries, usually set in the Deep South, where the devout play with snakes and believe anything if it comes with a bona fide performance from some flim flam artist.
But Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, which has just opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse, dispenses with the ballyhoo and pretence.
Here is a much more grounded and sombre story straight from Ireland’s rich storytelling heritage. A modern day fable about a couple’s inescapable destiny and a narrative that paints a dark and soulful portrait of a stormy marriage.
Faith Healer consists of monologues from its three characters, led by the eponymous faith healer of the title, Frank Hardy – the Fantastic Frank Hardy. He’s drunk, embittered, impassive and surprisingly charismatic (or perhaps that is just the intensity of Stephen Dillane’s low-key performance).
Grace (Gina McKee), a judge’s daughter who left a well-to-do upbringing for a life on the road with “a mountebank,” plays his emotionally scarred wife who struggles alone and suffers at the hands of her gifted husband.
But, dear-heart, it is Ron Cook’s engaging small-time promoter and star turn raconteur, Teddy, who holds our attention as we hear the story of Frank Hardy and his part in his downfall.
The audience arrives at the Donmar to discover a curtain of rain enveloping the small stage. Es Devlin’s downpour-design may look impressive but it brings a howl of complaints from the front row who say their seats are damp and they’re being splashed (there’s no pleasing some people).
But this is merely the opener on a yarn from our three players about what happened one stormy night when Hardy and his intimate group of vagabonds turn up at a remote village in Ireland looking to fleece a few shillings out of the gullible.
The rain stops and Dillane appears out of the darkness (it’s a very dark set) wearing a cloth cap, an old, badly fitted, suit and a scruffy beard. He has a glint in his eye and makes the slightest of swaggers that suggest that he’s in his cups. Not drunk – Hardy can hold his drink – but lubricated, well-oiled.
He looks around at his audience, taking in his surroundings, and he’s chanting, reciting the names of all the villages and towns in Wales and Scotland where he has performed. The names, with their Gaelic preference for double letters and lengthy titles, roll off the tongue in a lyrical incantation.
You can’t believe a lot of what Hardy says. He embellishes, invents, and performs. This isn’t a natural showman but someone who believes he has been blessed with a gift which occasionally works when called upon. Faith healing, we learn, isn’t an exact or reliable science.
McKee’s Grace is the weakest character of the three but she is fleshed out. We learn snatches of her back story, her stormy relationship with the fiery, boozy, Frank and what happens to her on a remote road in Scotland.
But it’s Teddy (Cook) who delights with his tales of provincial vaudeville acts and his time working as the Hardy’s road manager, booking them into faraway village halls and drumming up business from the sick and vulnerable.
In-between quaffing bottled beer in his dreary flat, Teddy regales us with wonderful anecdotes about a talented dog, the ignorance of theatrical greats, and of his own fragile relationship with Frank and Grace. You could listen to him all night.
Between the three of them we learn – near enough – what happened when Hardy was asked by a group of drunken yobs to heal their crippled mate.
Bleak, fascinating and engrossing, you find yourself hanging on their every word, particularly the quietly spoken Hardy who, at the Donmar, makes eye contact with the biggest audiences of his indifferent career as a healer.
The rain falls in-between monologues. As the drama plays out there is the occasional drip plopping onto the stage, narrowly missing Dillane or McKee, but never putting a dampener on this enthralling story.
Faith Healer runs at the Donmar Warehouse until August 20.
Faith Healer, from master storyteller, Brian Friel, is an engrossing series of monologues about a fateful night when the Fantastic Frank Hardy faced his toughest test. Bleak, boozy and beautifully told.