This article is from 2009.
The Gate Theatre’s opening piece in its Brian Friel mini-festival for the EIF is perhaps that author’s most complex and admired play. Its significances are so myriad that dozens of critical appraisals have attempted to fathom out its meaning. But the point from which all depart is the issue contained in the title: faith.
In it we witness three successive monologues, before the first character we meet returns to add an epilogue. He is Frank (Owen Roe), an alcoholic travelling faith healer, who might be a huckster, the genuine article or, the most likely option, a bit of both. His story tells of his struggle through continual poverty to present his show in rural postwar Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and revolves around the death of his mother, which is suddenly announced in a town in remote Sutherland. He returns to Ireland for the burial, and later makes his way to his native Donegal, where a violent incident occurs. His well-born wife Gracie (Ingrid Craigie) then appears, narrating some of the same events from a radically different viewpoint, but adding a stillborn child to the fabric of the tale. Then Teddy (Kim Durham), Frank’s Cockney manager, brings a third perspective to the same events, and embellishes the story still further.
In other words, these three narrators ask you for an act of faith in believing one of their disparate accounts of the events described. The constant presence of death and the rituals that surround it, themselves acts of faith, add an urgency to the audience’s need to believe, but no final answers are proffered. Instead a succession of theatrical motifs runs through the text, reminding us that the theatre’s unspoken contract with its audience, demanding our suspension of disbelief, is another act of faith. Robin Lefèvre’s production amounts to an intense and haunting character study, splendidly performed, with a resonant symbolic register that teases itself out through repeated words, an old gramophone record and some clever visual references through two decades of postwar austerity, Liz Ashcroft’s set changing from a desolate and remote meeting hall to two impoverished parlours, then back to its original form. A thoughtful and thoroughly engrossing night out.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, 17 & 18 Aug, 2, 4 & 5 Sep, 7.30pm, £10–£25.