Faith Healer review – Aidan Gillen is mercurial and mysterious in Brian Friel’s classic

Abbey theatre, Dublin
Gillen, Niamh Cusack and Nigel Lindsay deliver haunting monologues in director Joe Dowling’s production

Frank Hardy, faith healer, was too brainy to be a true artist, his manager thought. And in Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of the itinerant healer in Brian Friel’s celebrated play, Frank’s questioning intelligence is never in doubt. Rumpled, weary and swamped by his overcoat, Gillen delivers the first of his two monologues with an air of analytical abstraction, as Frank looks back, trying to make sense of his healing gift.

Returning to the Abbey theatre, where he directed the Irish premiere of Faith Healer in 1980, Joe Dowling brings an affectingly sombre tone to this production. Designed by John Lee Beatty with an unspecific brown, slatted, wooden set, the barn-like stage is somewhat underused, with only Gillen, in his climactic return, swivelling through the whole space, mercurial and mysterious. Perhaps reflecting our current atomised times, a heightened sense of isolation pervades, with the gulf in understanding between the three characters emerging through their separate, unreliable monologues.

Frank’s is the first version we hear of the story of how he, his loyal wife Grace (Niamh Cusack) and his rackety manager, Teddy (Nigel Lindsay), traversed rural Wales and Scotland in the 1950s. Setting up their banner in church halls, they waited for the afflicted to arrive in the hope of being cured. Very occasionally, cures did occur during Frank’s “performances”. These were the nights that stood out in hindsight, although each character remembers them in contradictory ways.

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After 40 years, Friel’s theme of the sources of creative inspiration still resonates: how did Frank do what he did; where did his talent come from; how was it that it struck sometimes but not others? Frank was an artist, Grace asserted, and in Cusack’s emotionally raw performance, this is the faith to which Grace clings, to assuage memories of Frank’s casual cruelty.

For all his showbiz patter, Teddy, too, is troubled by the same questions about Frank’s art. Balancing chirpy anecdotes from his old fit-up days with bleak recollections, Lindsay’s portrayal of vulnerability adds a rich note. It suggests a deep, complicated love and dependency between all three characters; a need to believe in something since they have no faith in themselves.