Faith Healer | Gate Theatre

Faith Healer | Gate TheatreLeft - Kim Durham. Cover - Owen Roe. Photos - Trent O'Donnell

I’ve been at Bondi beach all day and it’s been a beautiful day in Sydney. Now I’m sitting in the Parade Theatre at NIDA, which today desperately needs some form of air conditioning, and completely surrounded by old people. My guest and I have to be part of a tiny minority of young people present for Gate Theatre’s Sunday afternoon production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. The majority of the audience look like they’ve escaped from the local nursing home, replaced their watered down tea with glasses of wine, and are eager for some real nourishment.

On the stage before me is another old man, one Frank Hardy (Owen Roe); the Faith Healer. He’s a showman, cocky and proud, a humbled, narcissistic, delusional shit-talker. He’s telling us about his life, how he travelled around Scotland and Wales with his producer Teddy (Kim Durham) and mistress Grace (Ingrid Craigie) performing miracles by returning sight to the blind and straightening crooked fingers. He knows himself that he’s not one hundred percent legit, but at the same time is unable to explain his successes to himself and is drunk on the power his faith can instil in those who come to him for help.

I’m attentively listening to each word that Frank utters not wanting to miss that vital piece of information, the key that will unlock the deeper meaning of the play. But as his monologue begins to meander and drag on it’s a bit like listening to my Grandfather recounting stories from his glory days, but I’m less inclined to care because Frank Hardy isn’t my Grandfather and my Grandfather wasn’t a show pony who claimed to heal the afflicted through faith alone.

Supposedly in 1979 Walter Kerr, a prominent American theatre critic, stated that ‘Faith Healer’s riveting monologues required work from the audience’ and this clearly became apparent during intermission as several members of the audience commented while waiting at the bar that they were having trouble staying awake. But Kerr makes a valid point; Faith Healer isn’t an action packed play that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. However if you take the time to listen to Frank, Grace and Teddy tell their story, each in their own light, a delicate web of memory and myth is woven and herein lays the majesty of Friel’s writing which is wonderfully realised in Gate’s production.

Faith Healer would be a demanding play to produce. Structurally it is composed of four lengthy monologues, each juxtaposed on top of the other which provides the audience a filter sthrough which they can find their own truth to a story which has many. Each actor is entrusted to command the stage on their own and ramble through their character’s perspective on the events of the play. Each actor finds not only their character's voice, but their essence and shares it with the audience as each character would share their stories with a friend. Roe’s Frank is without a doubt the star of his own show, but his over confidence and egocentricity make him a hard character to love. Whereas one can’t help but pity Craigie’s Grace and Durham’s Teddy who, like delicately drawn moths, are lured to the flame of Frank’s fated finale.

Maybe all this has something to do with why there’s a noticeable absence of young people in the audience; Faith Healer provides nothing in the way of the instant gratification so often associated as the sole desire of the youth of today. Like a good bottle of wine you need to let Faith Healer breath, let it rest a little, then let it wash over the whole of your tongue to fully appreciate the complexity of the flavour, the tannins and the wine maker’s dreams.

The highlight of the show for me was Teddy’s monologue just after intermission. Durham revels in the idiosyncrasies of Teddy and the tales of the talent he has managed over the years. Teddy was just what the audience needed in that, in addition to providing yet another perspective to the sequence of events, he brought some comic relief to an otherwise fairly serious play that examines the construction of memory and identity. Which is not to say that Roe and Craigie didn’t hit the mark, because their performances were equally awesome, as much as Teddy was the most likable of the three and subsequently more of a pleasure to watch.

I have mixed feelings about the production but most of my negativity stems from my personal theatrical preferences whereas my overall satisfaction with the show is due to the high standard of Friel’s interwoven narrative and the life that Gate Theatre breaths into his characters. I’m generally not a fan of naturalism in the theatre nor am I engaged by long monologues yet from the opening I felt lured into the play; I wanted to know what happened to, and began to care for the well being of Frank, Grace and Teddy as the play progressed. It’s not an easy play to watch, but the production is strong and the rewards are there for those willing give their undivided attention.

Sydney Festival 2009
Gate Theatre
Faith Healer
by Brian Friel

Venue: Parade Theatre
Dates: January 15 – February 1
Duration: 2 hours 25 mins (including a 20 minute interval)
Prices: $60/$45
Bookings: Ticketek 1300 888 412

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