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Theatre review: Faith Healer

Theatre

This State Theatre presentation of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer is, in a word, mesmerising.

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Colin Friels is consummate as Francis/Frank Hardy, the central figure in a story of trust, doubt, some ambition, and always hope — whether founded or not. Faith in others and oneself, however, is the larger element.

Under Judy Davis’s direction, the play offers tantalising perspectives on the relationship between the members of a threadbare travelling show that draws often meagre audiences in small Celtic towns.

Local residents arrive with expectations that Hardy knows are not always about being cured but the unspoken and grim aspect of confirming a lack of cure. He does not raise that constant shadow with them. When healing does seem to happen, his response is an unsettled one mixing elation with doubt about his role in the transformation.

As each character, in turn, takes Brian Thomson’s sparely and perfectly set stage, the audience learns about the narrator before them, how each person has affected the others, and how critically their accounts differ. Woven together, these stories do more than question memory and what constitutes identity; they also query the nature of truth and self-understanding.

The opening and closing accounts are from Hardy, in a delightful outfit by costume designer Tess Schofield that is redolent of poor times. Completely absorbing, Hardy is either a performer and charlatan, or a sometimes gifted healer. Does he know?

Hardy is supported on the road by his longstanding partner, Grace (Alison Whyte), who is inconsistently referred to as his wife or mistress. That is another shifting factor, as is the extent of Hardy’s support of her.

Alison Whyte is engaging as Hardy’s partner, Grace. Photo: Brett Boardman

Whyte is thoroughly engaging in her depiction of someone attracted to a hurtful man, a woman damaged by indifference, cruelty and stark trauma. In the course of her narration, she addresses truth itself and whether what they knew and who they were could be regarded as fictions.

Familiar to Adelaide audiences, Paul Blackwell plays Hardy’s ex-vaudevillian manager Teddy in the third monologue. Outwardly comic, it has a core sadness about Teddy’s own life and about the dynamic between Frank and Grace, particularly regarding a key, destructive component.

Paul Blackwell plays Teddy in Faith Healer. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are two pivotal events recounted — and it pays to listen for key phrases repeated in different contexts. Both lead to disturbing revelations about Grace and Frank. Both address faith in others, or the loss of it. The last, as eventually told by Hardy, is epiphanic and moving (watch for Verity Hampson’s lighting change). In Friels’ hands, it is goosebump material.

This Belvoir production may leave you pondering afresh how well we know ourselves. Going by the patronage on the opening night and the way word will spread, I suggest booking immediately. Don’t miss this!

Faith Healer is being presented by the State Theatre Company at the Space Theatre until October 13.

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