from The Clare Champion, 1 September 2011:
EARLY in Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer, Frank Hardy admits his only conviction about his erratic gift. “I can tell you this: there was one thing I did know, one thing I always knew right from the beginning – I always knew, drunk or sober, I always knew when nothing was going to happen.”
It’s the nagging doubts that haunt Frank, the main character, about his vocation and how these affect his relationship with his partner, Grace, and showbiz manager, Teddy, that form the core of Andrew Flynn’s production of Faith Healer, which plays at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway until September 3 and Glór, Ennis on September 22.
“It’s the story of three very human people: one who’s got a gift he doesn’t understand and two others who love him for reasons they don’t understand,” says Andrew. “This is about three people sharing their stories. The drama is in the stories and the relationship between the characters and the audience.” Friel draws in the audience through four very personal monologues: the opening and closing from the charismatic but savage Frank; the second from the fragile and desperate Grace and the third from the charming and perceptive cockney, Teddy.
From each, we learn more about how they travelled around the remote parts of Wales and Scotland with Frank offering miracle cures to the chronically ill and Frank’s ominous homecoming to Donegal, where he is challenged by a wedding party to heal their paralysed friend. Although there is no interaction between the characters on stage, the play crackles with the tension between their conflicting versions of the same story, particularly the harrowing incidents in the small town of Kinlochbervie in northern Scotland and in Donegal.
“It’s an unconventional play but I’ve always loved it and been drawn to it,” says Andrew. “Friel goes back to the very essence of theatre, to the very basics of script and character. It’s a captivating story in which you feel like you’re getting to know the characters – there’s a real emotional attachment.” Andrew obviously holds Faith Healer in high esteem but does directing a play that consists purely of monologues present a significant challenge?
“Friel has written something beautiful and all we have to do is tell it honestly and truthfully,” he says. “The stage directions are very minimal and not a lot ‘happens’ – it’s not theatrical. But everyone in the audience should feel that the characters are talking to them personally, that they’re confiding in you, that they need you to listen.”
In fact, Andrew cites the experience of rehearsing this play with the cast of three as one of the most positive experiences of his entire career.
“It’s a privilege to listen to these stories and to direct this play,” he explains. “I went into it knowing it was a great play but there’s something really beautiful about Faith Healer and about three actors bearing their soul to me. It was written over 30 years ago but it hasn’t dated. It’ll still be performed in 100 years’ time.” In the play, Grace and Teddy display an unconditional devotion to Frank despite his casual cruelties, his vindictiveness and the meagre returns from his travelling show. Examining the source of their constant loyalty to Frank informed rehearsals.
“It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves again and again,” says Andrew. “And I don’t know if it gets answered. Frank Hardy is very special. He touches Grace and Teddy in strange ways. Grace can’t live without him.”
Part of the reason for their dedication seems to lie in their acknowledgement that Frank possesses a powerful but unpredictable magic, which tortures its bearer. “Frank has an unusual gift, which he didn’t ask for and over which he has no control. We were just discussing this during rehearsals. If you had the occasional ability to take away people’s problems and then 10 people come into the room but you can’t heal any of them – there’s real agony in that,” Andrew explains.
Written in 1977, Faith Healer was first performed on Broadway in 1979 but was a commercial failure and closed after 20 nights. Apart from its unusual format, the play places huge demands on the three actors and, for these reasons, is rarely performed. Despite this, it is considered one of Brian Friel’s masterpieces with faith healing a metaphor for creativity and a play in which he explores memory, chance and exile in characteristically lyrical language. This production is presented by the Town Hall Theatre, Galway and came about when Mike Diskin, the theatre’s general manager, invited Andrew to direct a Friel play of his choice.
“It was an open canvas,” says Andrew. “But budget was an issue. We couldn’t do something like Philadelphia, Here I Come because the cast is too big. Faith Healer is relatively undone but one of Friel’s best plays.”
Originally scheduled to play three venues over three weeks, this production has turned into a much bigger project and the cast will now tour 18 different venues over two and a half months.
It is fitting that Andrew has gained directing experience with Druid as it was their production of At the Black Pigs’ Dyke at his secondary school in Nenagh that inspired him to follow his career path. “I knew from then that theatre was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I fell into directing and over the last 15 years I’ve worked with Druid and Decadent Theatre Company in Galway. I love collaborating with companies and actors. It’s been a very exciting journey – no two days are ever the same. I wouldn’t do anything else.”
Frank Hardy offers this insight into his profession. “Faith healer – faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry.” Andrew Flynn shares none of these doubts about his vocation.