By Brian Friel
Director Judy Davis

  • Venue Upstairs Theatre
  • Dates 22 October – 27 November 2016
  • Duration Approx 1 hours & 50 minutes (no interval)

    Last century. The lovelorn, the malformed and the sick flock to a gifted rogue billed The Fantastic Francis Hardy: Faith Healer. Frank drifts the back roads of Britain with his wife and manager, hoping to find their way home. He might be just another shyster, more showman than shaman. But the trouble is, sometimes Fantastic Francis actually does bring the healing touch.

    The masterpiece of one of the greatest playwrights of the last 50 years, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer becomes more and more fascinating as it progresses. On one level about artifice and social responsibility, it’s also the story of what it means for a damaged family to be healed, and what it means to be truly saved.

    Hardy is an extraordinary creation: lovable charmer, proud tyrant, exploiter, saviour; saintly when he’s sinning, most honest in his lies. Starring Colin Friels, Pip Miller and Alison Whyte.


    By Brian Friel
    Director Judy Davis
    Set Designer Brian Thomson
    Costume Designer Tess Schofield
    Lighting Designer Verity Hampson
    Associate Lighting Designer Daniel Barber
    Composer & Sound Designer Paul Charlier
    Directorial Secondment Duncan Ragg
    Stage Manager Luke McGettigan
    Assistant Stage Manager Roxzan Bowes
    Production Thanks Emma Vine


    Colin Friels
    Pip Miller
    Alison Whyte


    Rehearsal images by Brett Boardman
    Production images by Brett Boardman
    • Director’s Note – Judy Davis


      Born Catholic in County Omagh, Northern Ireland in 1929, Brian Friel’s understanding of both his country and his own identity was shaped by being, as he termed it, a member of the minority.

      “I certainly think we’re a maimed people in this country,” Friel once said. “We’re a maimed people to the extent that there was once a language in use in this country; this language is gone. When we say we’re trying to identify ourselves, I’m not quite saying that we’re trying to identity a national identity, that’s a different kind of thing. When you talk about a national identity, I’m not quite sure what that means. But when you’re trying to identify yourself, that means you’ve got to produce documents, you’ve got to produce sounds, you’ve got to produce images that are going to make you distinctive in some way. If there’s a sense of decline in this country, it’s because we can’t readily produce these identification marks.”

      Written in the midst of the Troubles, Faith Healer (1979) is in part a complex study of identity and sense of place. All three characters are outsiders, itinerants: Frank Hardy the faith healer; Grace his wife, or perhaps mistress; and Teddy, Frank’s cockney manager. As they trawl the dying Welsh and Scottish villages of the Celtic fringe of Britain in search of audiences, Teddy refrains: “we are going to make a killing this time, dear hearts.” We meet them later, isolated, haunted by anguished memories, searching for reconciliation with the past, for an understanding of the lives they once shared and who or what they might be. But the characters’ control over their lives is fragile.

      “I think, when the possibility of being able to control, or determine what you should do, or what you must do, is no longer in your hands and can no longer be summoned, I think in that case death occurs. Maybe not necessarily a physical death but a spiritual death occurs.” Brian Friel on Faith Healer.

      These issues of identity, of the importance of a sense of place, of foreign conquest, and of the damage done when one’s destiny is out of one’s control – all strike a familiar and profound note beyond the shores of Ireland. Faith Healer could be described as a memory play: “while memory is about what has happened in the past, it’s also about what might have happened but never did.” That the characters’ troubled memories are often in conflict is unsurprising – we remember differently, sometimes what we need to remember, to create a coherent narrative for ourselves perhaps; at times, perhaps, to hide.

      Ballybeg, Friel’s imagined town, is a place of haunting memory that often appears in his plays, notably in Dancing at Lughnasa. Irish writer, Frank McGuinness, once said about the fictional town: “Most Irish people would love to live in Ballybeg, for there is one extraordinary characteristic about this small Donegal town: in Brian’s plays it is always very good weather. In fact, it is almost Mediterranean weather – volcanic weather. Because he does see it as a place of passion, and he does see it as a place of revelation; brilliant light.”

      So, as August yields to September, Frank Hardy makes his fateful journey to Ballybeg. Autumn: harvest season, time of reapers, time of offerings. This is not a simple play; another quote from Friel may be helpful: “I gave up my study for the priesthood out of conflict with my belief in paganism.”

      Brian Friel died on October 2nd, 2015. His great friend, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, had evocatively described the spirit of this great dramatist a few years before: “What I remember best, I suppose, about the seventies, is the visits in the summertime up to Donegal. First of all to Brian’s own house in Moft, just outside Derry, but particularly the summer visits to his house in Mollyduft. I associate those summers with the light coming off the sea, with big windows, with a great freshness, with a sense of being in the Gaeltacht almost, in the ‘old dream Ireland’. This lighthouse, a house full of sea light, full of conversation, full of energy, full of irony. It was displaced and elsewhere, and Brian was at the centre of it as a focus and a stimulus.”


      B. Nightingale. ‘Brian Friel, Playwright Called the Irish Chekhov, Dies at 86’, The New York Times, 2nd October 2015

      S. Rea, ‘Stephen Rea’s tribute to Brian Friel: a shy man and a showman’, The Irish Times, 2nd October 2015

      ‘Brian Friel’, RTÉ, 2000

    • Brian Friel

      At the close of 2015, we lost one lost one the world’s finest playwrights in Brian Friel, and also one of the most self-effacing. Despite his reputation as Ireland’s greatest contemporary dramatist, there are limited interviews to be found with the scribe. He was famously reclusive when it came to the media and deeply modest about his own talents. In a rare talk he gave on BBC radio in 1972 entitled Self-Portrait, Friel had fun playing interviewer to himself:

      Which of your plays are your favourite?

      None of them.

      Which of your stories?

      Most of them embarrass me.

      Do you think the atmosphere in Ireland is hostile or friendly to the artist?

      I’m thinking of my lunch.

      Suffice to say, Friel was an artist who let his work speak for himself, and what an extraordinary and diverse body of work that is. In a career spanning four decades, Friel scripted over 30 plays, always balancing his sharp observations with humour and warmth.

      Bernard Patrick Friel was born near Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Island, on January 9 in 1929. He never strayed far from these roots all his life. The majority of his plays were set in Ballybeg (from the Irish word for ‘small town’), a fictitious town in Donegal where Friel spent his holidays as a child. It was a setting that was local and specific, but also universal – as evidenced by the way that Friel’s plays have found a home on stages all over the world. Often through the prism of family, the playwright explored themes of cultural identity and social change, the desire for self-realisation and transcendence, and the slippery nature of language and memory.

      Friel grew up the son of a Catholic schoolmaster and a postmistress, both of whom were staunch nationalists. Following a brief unhappy period studying for the priesthood, he followed in his father’s footsteps, and worked as a teacher throughout the 1950s. One of the most courageous decisions Friel made was his decision to give up teaching and dedicate himself to full-time writing in 1960, a particularly brave move given he was a 31-year-old married man with a growing family at the time. It was a decision that was perhaps made easier by the fact that by the mid-fifties he was regularly publishing short stories in a handful of American magazines, and had secured a contract with The New Yorker.

      By the early sixties, however, Friel was tiring of writing short stories and had turned his hand to plays. A pivotal moment came in the playwright’s early career when, in 1963, he was invited to the newly opened Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis by its founder and famed theatre director, Tyrone Guthrie. He had been impressed by Friel’s short stories and saw promise in his earliest plays. It was here spending time in the rehearsal room that Friel decided on a career as a playwright. Of the time, he said: “I learned a great deal about the iron discipline of theatre [and] those months in America gave me a sense of liberation – remember, this was my first parole from inbred, claustrophobic Ireland – and that sense of liberation conferred on me a valuable self-confidence and a necessary perspective.”

      His time spent at Guthrie Theater proved fruitful, and his next play Philadelphia Here I Come!, was his most assured by far, premiering to rave reviews at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964. The play centred around an emotionally conflicted young Irishman emigrating to America, but was so striking because the protagonist was split into “private” and “public” selves, with two different actors playing the role. The work travelled to Broadway in 1966 where it was nominated for Best Play at the Tony Awards. It also very quickly cemented Friel’s reputation as an innovative playwright prepared to explore painful social realities.

      Friel followed Philadelphia Here I Come! with The Loves of Cass McGuire, which can be seen as complementary to its predecessor, about a 70-year-old woman returning to Ireland after 50 years in America. Its journey to stage in 1966, however, proved a traumatic experience for the author. The play was to premiere in New York, but during its rehearsals, the script was significantly altered and a furious Friel threatened legal action. While Friel’s original script was reinstated, it marked the beginning of the playwright’s conflicted relationship with the theatre director, which he once deemed “a bogus profession”, solely responsible for ensuring actors appeared on time and knew their lines. When asked in a 1968 interview what he thought the relationship between a playwright and director should be, Friel replied: “I’m afraid I’m very arrogant about this … My belief is absolutely and totally in the printed word, and that this must be interpreted precisely and exactly as the author intended.”

      In the 1970s, The Troubles in Northern Island erupted and there was an expectation that the artists of the time would draw directly from the escalating street violence, but Friel resisted this pressure. He had no intention of making any overt political messages. A rare exception, however, was 1973’s The Freedom of the City, which concerned the fate of three protesters wrongfully killed in the wake of a Civil Rights meetings. The play was a response to the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, where Friel himself had been a demonstrator. Friel, however, would later describe the play as “reckless” and “ill-considered”, and his subsequent works – 1975’s Volunteers and 1977’s Living Quarters– would address the violence unfolding in Ireland through a more distanced lens.

      While the seventies were a difficult and somewhat isolating decade for the dramatist, Friel enjoyed a particularly creative period in 1979-80, during which he saw the premiere of three of his plays: Faith HealerAristocrats and TranslationsFaith Healer, the story of a gifted rogue and his tragic entourage, is considered a masterpiece today, but met with mixed reviews when it first opened. Critics struggled with its stark form, which is now considered its genius – it comprises four monologues, with each testimony calling into question what we have heard before. It’s with Faith Healer that Friel expresses most powerfully a theme that has always lingered in his work – that our memories and stories only reveal partial truths about ourselves.

      In 1980, Friel founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, along with actor Stephen Rea, with the intention of taking productions on tour in Northern Ireland. Its first production was Friel’s Translations, which became an instant classic. A love story set against Britain’s plan to map Ireland and de-Gaelicise its place names, it reveals the inexplicable connection between language and colonisation. A smash hit on stages all over the world, Translations was followed by the political satire The Communication Cord and Making History about the first Earl of Tyrone.

      Friel’s next great success came with 1990’s Dancing at Lughnasa, the playwright’s most autobiographical play based on childhood memories of his mother and four aunts. The play warmly portrays five sisters who, like many of Friel’s characters, feel trapped in their domestic situation – with their hopes and desires erupting in one spontaneous dance sequence that remains one of the most memorable scenes in all of Friel’s work. The Broadway production won the Tony for Best Play and was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep in 1998.

      The seventies and eighties may have seen Friel garner a reputation as an author of history plays, but the nineties saw Friel produce three works – Wonderful TennesseeMolly Sweeney and Give Me Your Answer Do! – which engaged with a contemporary Ireland, though they were less commercially successful. His final original work was The Home Place in 2005, fittingly set in Ballybeg, and again saw the playwright exploring issues of cultural identity in 19th century Ireland.

      Beginning in the eighties, Friel also adapted a number of works of Anton Chekhov including Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, updating the plays to Irish settings. With his own plays about family and subtle characterisations, Friel was often hailed as the ‘Irish Chekhov’, and the playwright has spoken of a kinship with the Russian writer: “The characters in his plays behave as if their old certainties were as sustaining as ever – even though they know in their hearts that their society is in melt-down and the future has neither a welcome nor even an accommodation for them.”

      While dedicating over four decades of his life to the art form, Friel remained humble about his own powers as a playwright, and that of the medium itself. He once said: “At the end of any night’s experience in the theatre, all that any writer can hope for is that maybe one dozen people have been moved ever so much or ever so slightly, and that the course of their lives may be enriched or altered by a very fine degree. I don’t believe for one second that a dramatist is going to change the face of the earth.” Friel’s pragmatism is telling, but if his legacy of work is anything to go by, we should be wary of accepting such a statement as the whole truth.


      Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics by Anthony Roche, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

      Brian Friel, playwright – obituary, The Telegraph, 2015


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