Faith Healer

Reuben Liversidge

Melbourne audiences will be praising the Lord that they get to see this award winning production.
Faith Healer

Image Credit: Jeff Busby

A bare bones stage. Three actors. Four monologues. Theatrical magic. For their third main stage production of 2017 Melbourne Theatre Company have brought down Belvoir’s award winning production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer from Sydney and Melbourne audiences should praise the Lord that they get to see it.

Frank (Colin Friels) is a shabby faith healer travelling through the towns of Wales and Scotland dispensing his increasingly unreliable spiritual ‘cures’ to a dwindling audience. He drags along his unhappy ‘mistress’ Grace (Alison Whyte) and faithful manager Teddy (Paul Blackwell), but their patience with Frank is wearing thin and their relationships are beginning to fall apart. Everything comes to a head one fateful night in a yard outside an isolated rural pub on the outskirts of Ballybag and each character tells their version of the life they have lead together and the events leading up to this devastating moment.

Faith Healer unfolds in four consecutive monologues; Frank opens and closes the play whilst Grace tells her story and Teddy his in the middle sections. It’s a slow burn of a play so it’s disappointing that an interval was added as part of the Melbourne season; it stops the flow and lessons the tension. Brian Friel’s prose is poetic and evocative, relishing the Gaelic language and painting vivid images of the stories being told. After Frank’s opening speech small inconsistencies begin to creep into the narrative until the audience can no longer discern the truth. We also quickly discover that the characters are not anchored to a specific time or place; they appear stuck in a kind of purgatory. This is a play about the unreliability of memory and the little lies we tell in order to make sense of our lives. Faith Healer is a beautiful and tragic examination of the loss of identity and the trauma of the past.

Acclaimed Australian actor Judy Davis has directed this production with a clear focus on allowing her extraordinary cast (including husband Friels) to take centre stage. There are no bells and whistles, simply three brilliant actors telling the story directly to the audience and bringing these memories to life. As an audience member you can truly ‘see’ everything being described in perfect detail. You are also acutely aware that these characters are here in this space with us at this moment and the solid connection the actors have with the audience is electrifying.

Brian Thomson’s set design and Verity Hampson’s lighting perfectly match Davis’ straightforward directorial approach. A sweeping backdrop of foreboding storm clouds envelops the small thrust stage evoking the dark themes and purgatorial setting of the play. Rows of chairs close to the stage conjure a church revival feel in keeping with Frank’s profession and the weathered banner proclaiming the “Fantastic Francis Hardy” is perfectly decayed. The lighting is subtle enough to not distract from character and story yet powerful enough when needed to cue the audience to shifts in narrative and evoke a sense of impending doom.

Friels and Whyte both won Sydney Theatre Awards for Faith Healer and you can see why. These are brilliantly realised performances and having played these roles only a few moths ago at Belvoir their characters feel truly lived in. Friels’ Frank is captivating and you can understand why this man is such a showman and able to keep Grace and Teddy in tow. Wearing an ill fitting, crumpled and stained suit (costume designs by Tess Schofield) Friels attacks the playwright’s language with passion and dances around the stage with a childlike energy. His constant listing of “dying Welsh villages” becomes an almost demonic incantation, hinting at the violence and danger lurking behind the showbiz façade.

Is there a better actress working in the Australian theatre today than Alison Whyte? I don’t think so. She is phenomenal in this role. Her Grace is wracked with doubt, about her choices and her tumultuous relationship with Frank, and she has a complete emotional breakdown right before our eyes. It’s truly heart wrenching to watch and Whyte makes sure we feel every single emotion right to the core. Her trembling hands constantly pouring glass after glass of whiskey betrays her constant insistence that she is “getting better” and the full tragedy of Grace’s story is laid bare in a truly bravura performance.

Blackwell brings a welcome touch of comic relief as the loveable cockney Teddy. As he swigs on several beers and imparts his extensive knowledge of handling difficult artists, including a hilarious anecdote about trying to put a bagpipe playing whippet out to stud, Blackwell has the audience in stitches. When he reveals the true extent of his feelings towards Grace it’s a poignant moment of melancholy.

Faith Healer is seriously good theatre, plain and simple. The accolades for this production look set to continue for its Melbourne season and they will be well and truly deserved. Buy a ticket, take your seat and prepare to be healed.

4 ½ stars

Faith Healer
By Brian Friel
A Belvoir production presented by MTC
Directed by Judy Davis
Featuring Paul Blackwell, Colin Friels and Alison Whyte

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
4 March – 8 April 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.