14 July 2016
Seeing is believing
In theatre there are only a few examples – Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along is one – of a show that flops when first produced, then enters the repertoire through revivals. Even rarer is a play that starts as a fabled disaster and is later acclaimed as a masterpiece. But such is the case with the Northern Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.
When premiered on Broadway in 1980, an American baptism resulting from New York’s long historical affinity with Irish writing, the play caused boredom and bewilderment to audiences and critics. Despite the casting of movie star James Mason, roughly equivalent to having Michael Caine now, it lasted for only 20 performances. However, revelatory stagings in the decades since – with Patrick Magee and Ralph Fiennes in the central role – so raised its status that it seems the obvious choice for the first major Friel revival in London since his death last October.
The play consists of four monologues of roughly half an hour each, with speeches by Frank Hardy, who tours Celtic and English villages offering to cure the sick, book-ending the reminiscences of Grace, his wife, and Teddy, a Cockney showbiz agent who drives the van and books the halls for his miracle act.
Friel, a lapsed Catholic, considered himself a non-religious or post-religious writer, but the faith marked his greatest plays, through the triggering figure of a missionary priest in Dancing at Lughnasa and two intriguing creative decisions in Faith Healer.
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