Brian Friel retrospective includes Faith Healer, The Yalta Game and Afterplay
This article is from 2009.
Brian Friel has been writing landmark plays for half a century. With the Festival bringing us a retrospective of his stage work, Mark Fisher explores the man dubbed an Irish Chekhov
At the head of the pantheon of Irish dramatists there is JM Synge, there is Sean O’Casey and there is Brian Friel. As far as director Patrick Mason sees it, there is no question: Friel is Ireland’s greatest living writer. ‘It’s an amazing opus,’ he says. ‘And it’s the kind of thing we’re hardly likely to see again. His is the last generation of writers who simply say “we’re playwrights”, and have written for the theatre for 50 or 60 years. I don’t think we’re going to see that sheer devotion again.’
In an island blessed with a surfeit of fine playwrights, the 80-year-old Friel is a towering figure. Plays such as Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa have secured the Derry-born writer’s place in the canon. ‘It’s important to let him know what a fantastic contribution he has made,’ says Mason. ‘In terms of a legacy to the Irish repertoire, it is unparalleled. These are the plays that define what Irish theatre is at the moment.’ Now, Dublin’s Gate Theatre is bringing three of Friel’s plays to Edinburgh, having launched them in Australia at the start of the year, though the globetrotting tour does not reach Dublin until the autumn.
The centrepiece is Faith Healer, the story of Frank aka the Fantastic Francis Hardy, a man whose gift for miracle cures turns out to be fatally inconsistent. It’s directed by Robin Lefevre who is also staging Afterplay, which brings together the Chekhov characters Sonya (niece of Uncle Vanya) and Andrey (brother of the three sisters), and imagines they have both reached middle age. Mason, meanwhile, directs The Yalta Game, a reworking of Chekhov’s short story ‘The Lady with the Lapdog’ about Dmitry Gurov, a womanising Muscovite, and a holiday romance that refuses to fade. ‘It’s a most beautiful piece,’ he says. ‘It’s like a quintessence of Friel. He pursues certain very personal themes in it, one being that he turns Dmitry Gurov into an amateur philologist. It gives Friel an opportunity to bring onto the stage his obsession with language and the slippage between word and meaning.’
One of the first things Gurov says is ‘believe me’, which straight away forces us to question his reliability as a narrator. ‘Friel plays with our propensity to believe what we are told,’ Mason says. ‘That’s why he is such a wonderful playwright, because he turns all those things on their head and then, just when you think he can’t twist it again, he does.’ The Chekhov connection is not coincidental. Friel has done celebrated translations of Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters and has been dubbed the Irish Chekhov. ‘The three plays echo each other,’ says Mason. ‘They underpin the themes that run through all his work and sit together very well.’
Faith Healer stands out as the major work in this mini-retrospective. First seen 30 years ago, it’s about a travelling miracle man and his wife and manager as they tour the small towns of Scotland and Wales, putting on a show for credulous audiences. Tuning in to the Edinburgh International Festival’s theme about superstition and rationalism, it’s most notable for an innovative structure. Like his more recent play, Molly Sweeney (an award-winning hit for the Citizens Theatre in 2005), the play is told entirely through monologues. The characters do not directly interact, but their different perspectives serve to flesh out the story.
‘When it was written in the early 80s it was rejected as “not a play,” but fast-forward to now and we’re coming down with monologues,’ says Mason thinking of the work of Irish writers such as Mark O’Rowe and Abbie Spallen. ‘It’s been extremely influential, because they are monologues of characters and people’s attempts to give a narrative to their lives. His great insight is into the treacherous nature of language and meaning. It’s a postmodern sensibility, except that Friel keeps faith with the language. Faith healing is the perfect paradigm: it works every now and then. You can never tell when, but it will not work at all unless there is an act of faith.’
Faith Healer, 15–18 Aug, 2, 4&5 Sep, 7.30pm; 16 Aug, 2.30pm; The Yalta Game, 29&30 Aug, 1 Sep, 9pm; 4 Sep, 5pm; 5 Sep, 2pm; Afterplay, 31 Aug, 9pm; 1 Sep, 6pm; 3 Sep, 7.30pm; 4 Sep, 2pm; 5 Sep, 5pm. All performances at King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, £10–£25.