Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse
Memories are mere fictions that we allow to define us. Or so suggests Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, told through the overlapping stories of Frank (Stephan Dillane), his wife Grace (Gina McKee) and his manager Teddy (Ron Cook) in a new Donmar Warehouse production that contains three of the best performances seen this year.
Faith Healer poses a curious challenge for a director as it is a play that one imagines would be as comfortable on the radio as it would be on stage. Lyndsey Turner and set designer Es Devlin (the duo behind the Barbican’s blockbuster Hamlet last year) have created a production that preserves the intimacy of Friel’s monologues without completely neutering their theatrical instinct. Enveloped in a wall of rain, each scene change feels like a cleansing experience, memories washed away to prepare for something new. A sparse stage is then cast adrift on a web of dark wire, with each character coming on to occupy their own space as if trapped in time: Frank forever pacing in front a meagre audience, Grace stuck in a life of domestic banality, Teddy left with a paltry set of mementos from a lifelong career.
As Frank’s wife, Gina McKee squats in the murky zone between strength and fragility. She poses the question of why a woman like Grace would be with a man like Frank, someone who routinely obliterates her existence, without ever causing the audience to doubt the depth of her devotion or the extent of her loss. Teddy, meanwhile, is an old-school manager from a bygone era of celebrity, yet Ron Cook drags him back from a Cockney cliché, presenting a man trying to hold onto the twinkle in his eye despite the weight of what he has seen. Bookending the play is Stephen Dillane as the titular faith healer. The Game of Thrones star brings a halting cadence to Frank that suggests a man self-doubting and self-aggrandising in equal measure, someone skirting the edges of inebriation with both the bottle and himself.
Language is central to all three characters, from Frank’s hypnotic chants to Grace’s emotional eloquence to Teddy’s showbiz patter, so it is apt that the play’s true power lies not in the savvy staging or magnetic performances, but in Friel’s text. Through his four muscular and mellifluous monologues the playwright tackles self-perception (and its twin self-denial), the elusive source of artistic genius and the doubts that faith is built upon. As Faith Healer swells to its crescendo, not that of promised brutality but instead of brief transcendence, the audience dares not draw its breath, the cumulative weight of Friel’s words reaching one fleeting moment of catharsis.
Faith Healer is on at the Donmar Warehouse from 23rd June to 20th August 2016, for further information or to book visit here.