Brian Friel – Shy Man, Showman: Conventional tribute to an experimental genius

TV review: This quietly stirring documentary is a straightforward record of life and career

Brian Friel was a master of Irish theatre – or, perhaps more accurately, of many different kinds of Irish theatre. His first play, 1964's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, was a breathless exploration of interiority (it broke new ground by having actors portray a character's external and internal self) and a commentary on 1960s Ireland and its reflex towards self-pitying misery.

He never stopped trying new things after that, whether that be the repurposing of the monologue as emotion-shredding blank canvas in Faith Healer (1980). Or the casting of small-town Donegal as a canvas for a post-Chekhovian comedy of manners in Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

But if Friel was always willing to break the rules, or make up his own, Brian Friel – Shy Man, Showman (RTÉ One, Thursday) is sturdily conventional. This profile of the playwright, who passed away in 2015 at age 86, does not attempt to reinvent Friel and instead delivers a satisfyingly and straightforward chronicling of his life and career.

It helps that Friel seems to have been grounded and, if not quite avuncular, then at least blessed with self-awareness. Archive interviews with the writer have a pithy quality, suggesting that, if there was a joke, he was entirely in on it.

A glittering gallery of admirers has been lined up to sing his praises, too. Liam Neeson recalls, half-awestruck, his memories of appearing in the original Derry Guildhall run of Translations, Friel's rumination on what was lost when Irish people were severed from their native language. Game of Thrones star Indira Varma reads from Faith Healer, a play that broke so many rules critics at the time dismissed it as indulgent (a quartet of monologues interweave to tell, fragment by fragment, a story of unbearable heartache).

The most telling observation is from Friel himself. On being hailed a successor to iconic Irish playwrights such as Shaw, he pointed out that he was something else entirely. “These were all Irish dramatists who went over and acquired an English voice so that they could be more acceptable to English people”. For Friel the only approval worth having was that of his own countrymen and women. He was different from what had come before and this quietly stirring documentary leaves us in little doubt as to why.

This article was edited on January 7th

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