Some actors are born to play a certain role: fated, you might say. It is ironic that actor Finbar Lynch and Brian Friel’s hero Frank Hardy are such a match, since one aspect of this 1979 masterpiece is the tension between faith and fate. Is Frank, the faith healer who works a succession of out-of-the-way village halls in Wales and Scotland, destined to a particular end, or can he muster enough belief in himself to choose his own fate? The answer we take from the play depends on how much credence we give to the often contradictory accounts by Frank, his (probably) wife Grace and his manager Teddy.
Friel comes from the Irish borderlands and sets all his plays in and around a similar area, the fictitious Donegal village of Ballybeg (where Faith Healer climaxes). His characters, too, are usually perched on some cusp or other: between the past and the future (hence Friel’s dramatic kinship with Chekhov), between value and worthlessness, and here also between this world and the next.
Lynch does not have the marrow-deep mournfulness of the late Donal McCann, who made this role his own, but he possesses a bleak fatalism (that notion again) … after all, as Frank tells us his tale, true or false, he already knows how it ends. Lynch’s natural sardonicism works well in the mix, as if Frank is trying in vain to be playfully dismissive even of his own self-despite. In the second of the four monologues which compose the play, Kathy Kiera Clarke’s Grace is much more obviously battling to retain self-control; it is perhaps significant that her moment of most intense emotion concerns not Frank but her own father. Richard Bremner’s Teddy provides both some deliciously down-at-heel showbiz humour and the most temperate psychological perspective, before Frank returns to recount what we too now know to be the inevitable.
As the main house of Bristol Old Vic closes for refurbishment, Mike Britton’s design turns the basement studio into one of the dingy halls frequented by “the fantastic Francis Hardy, faith healer”. The intimacy adds to the compelling material, and Lynch knows well how to play a silence. Simon Godwin’s production proves that, while upstairs is out of commission, smaller does not in any way mean lesser.