Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Long forgotten by his oldest kin, and dreaded by every audience who come out to see him, Frank Hardy doesn't put much faith in others. The healer of Brian Friel's extraordinary 1979 play might second-guess his talent – is it really a cure for people's illness, or a psychological placebo altering their perception? But he is certain it gives his own life meaning. "I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself," he says, after healing a congregation.
Not that a complete version of Frank is ever allowed in Friel’s tragedy, which receives a knockout revival by the Abbey Theatre. Over different characters’ monumentally long, interlocking monologues, details of the story will be edited with each revisit, cast with suspicion, like a scripture containing slight discrepancies. What will people believe?
Aidan Gillen shrewdly makes Frank out to be one of the play's true punchlines. Watch him recall a devastating family reunion, and smile with astonishment as his father begins to cry, as if he had never seen that before
In Aidan Gillen’s absorbing performance, we get a Frank who is scraggy and grey-haired, buffeted from village to village without thanks. His faith-healing production is sadistic – he walks among his loathsome, sick audiences to the jazzy strains of the Fred Astaire classic The Way You Look Tonight. That may seem a callous entertainment, but Gillen accomplishes a genuine miracle: he shrewdly makes Frank out to be one of the play’s true punchlines. Watch him recall a devastating family reunion, and smile with astonishment as his father begins to cry, as if he had never seen that before.
What’s impressive from this towering production by Joe Dowling – who directed the Irish premiere, 41 years ago – is how the play pings off recent history. Grace (an excellent Niamh Cusack), first described to us as a vacuous groupie, is seen recovering from a traumatising marriage with Frank, and there doesn’t seem to be any question, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, of whether this is a rocky relationship or downright exploitation.
Cusack’s performance lights up with sarcasm and bitterness, as Grace traces Frank’s egotistical outbursts and sums up his fantasies about people: “They’re not real as persons, but real as fictions,” she explains, with horror.
An audience may find itself similarly duped, as the serpentine play, with each passing monologue, seems to care less which of its parts convince you. Nigel Lindsay’s Teddy, a promoter touring with Frank who understands that this character’s emotional depths can be plumbed with showman-like extravagance, will even say, “It makes no difference to me whether you believe me or not.”
That Faith Healer pushes back against easy truths seems an arch comment on worship, baptising its audience as wilful sceptics, separating competing details of what happened. Did Frank make up a story about his mother dying? When was the last time he saw Grace? Who crafted the cross for a dead baby’s grave?
Less contestable is the gaping emptiness devouring the characters' lives, the voids that are impossible to fill: the absence of loved ones, broken connections with estranged fathers, or yearnings to become better parents than their own. That requires something more tangible than chance, as Frank knows well, in his final, desperate reckoning.
Runs at the Abbey Theatre until January 22nd