Faith Healer written by Brian Friel at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Faith Healer – by the late Brendan Friel – was first performed on the 29th of November 1976 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Afterwards, Friel reworked and expanded the script to what it is now, surely one of the finest plays of the twentieth century but which was, when premiered on Broadway in 1979, a failure, just as it was when broadcast by the BBC in 1980 – “a disappointing exercise in monologue” – and at its “overblown … but … intriguing” British premiere at the Royal Court in 1981. Only at its Irish premiere, in Dublin at the Abbey in 1980 was Friel’s play truly a success.

Declan Conlon in Faith Healer - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.
Declan Conlon in Faith Healer – Lyric Hammersmith Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.

So what changed?

Nothing. The play remains the same. In the words of the Oscar-winning actor James Mason, who starred in the short-lived New York run, Faith Healer remains “a very unusual play”. However, over the last forty years, the power and quality of Friel’s masterpiece has become apparent. Superficially, it is about a man who travels the Celtic nations in search of miracles to perform, or not, and it deals with the impact of his vagabond life on his wife and his manager. It is by turns uproariously funny and profoundly sad. Yet Friel’s quietly magisterial play is about so much more than that. It deals with the reality of faith, whether “illusion, or delusion”, and with what memory means and how, in every sense, we each of us make our own memories. Above all, Faith Healer is about the complexities of love. In four monologues, told over a brisk 130 minutes (excluding the interval) Friel unwinds their shared story through to the play’s conclusion, a devastating transfiguration in an Irish village.

As Francis Hardy the Faith Healer – “The initials were convenient, weren’t they?” – Declan Conlon is magnetic, a protean showman whose every word must be weighed carefully. Justine Mitchell is Grace Hardy, calmer in the role than others but quietly baring her heart and soul as she reflects on the life she has lived and on the life she has lost. As Hardy’s ebullient manager Teddy, Nick Holder is outstanding; this is a man we can believe in even though in time it becomes apparent that he too has never been wholly honest, not even with himself.

For the Lyric’s crisp new production of Faith Healer, the director Rachel O’Riordan – the theatre’s AD – and the designer Colin Richmond have put Brendan Friel’s words front and centre. Unlike the 2016 revival at the Donmar, there are no rain effects, nor is there anything like the “aural bombardment” that was a feature of the London premiere in 1981. Instead, the set is as Friel describes in the script with Richmond’s key contribution an initially imperceptible element of design that conveys the decadence that lies at the heart of this beautiful and beguiling play.

Highly recommended

5 Stars

Review by Louis Mazzini

Trawling through the remote and lonely villages of Wales and Scotland is, The Fantastic Frank Hardy, who for one night only promises miracle cures for the sick and the suffering. He might just be more showman than shaman but… the promise of the impossible is irresistible.

But it’s Frank’s shapeshifting gift and proclamations that bring him into conflict with his wife Grace and manager Teddy. As they each recount their lives together, they unveil a well of fractured memories.

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre presents
Faith Healer
Written by Brian Friel. Directed by Rachel O’Riordan.
14 Mar – 13 Apr 2024

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