Faith Healer by Brian Friel
Bristol Old Vic theatre
Hong Kong Arts Festival, March 2
Shouson Theatre, HK Arts Centre
Four monologues may not fit everyone’s notion of an evening of excellent theatre, yet this mesmerising production shines because of the quality of the writing, acting and directing.
Frank Hardy (Paul Hickey), the faith healer of the title, opens and closes the drama by Irish playwright Brian Friel. His wife Grace (Kathy Kiera Clarke) and manager (Richard Bremmer) complete a quartet of versions of reality.
It was enthralling to watch these quality actors. As Hickey said in an after-show chat, what actor can resist the chance to have an audience to himself for upwards of an hour?
All three actors approached their craft differently yet superbly. Hickey showed controlled energy and passion. Clarke exuded raw emotion while Bremmer was more conversational and quietly intellectual.
Bremmer wears a tatty smoking jacket with stained lapels, the middle button missing from his grimy cardigan. He is an old man living on memories and beer. This is an actor on top of his game. He knows how to use pauses; at one point he pours a beer and then savours it for what seems like an eternity before speaking.
Clarke was edgy and agitated, her tense body show the intensity of her anguish and depression. It would spoil the plot to explain the origins of those emotions. She connects with the audience, appealing to them in her grief. Her anguish sustains the rhythm of the play.
Hickey relates the story of the faith healer who tours remote villages of the British Isles with grim objectivity and a touch of sardonic humour.
It was an evening of confessional theatre: Conspiratorial conversations with the audience, taking us into their confidence like intimate friends. As director Simon Godwin said after the performance, the audience is the fourth character in the play.
The characters continually chant a mantra of Welsh and Irish village names, an incantation of towns that seems to sustain them. The play shows how people use words to explain away trauma and deal with grief through storytelling. From these jumbled offerings we the audience must construct a version of the truth.
Go see this play to experience real drama, not the staged pap of cinema or television.
Published in the South China Morning Post, 5 March 2012, C2, under the headline “A certain cure for those tired of the conventional”.