The Spaces Between: Experiencing Faith Healer

Brian Friel’s Faith Healer is a complex, singular theatrical experience. When we saw it, it touched us in a profound way. Here, we try to explain why.

When Artistic Director Geordie Brookman briefed us about Faith Healer, his description of the show contained a lot of … pauses. Almost as if the words were on the tip of his tongue bu he couldn’t quite form them. Like some unknowable force kept tripping him up. It turns out that force was Faith Healer. We sat him down and asked him to put into words his experience of the show. He said:

I sat in Faith Healer completely transfixed. It felt as though I was drawn almost imperceptibly into a ghost story where my perception of truth and memory became mutable. As the play progresses time folds in on itself. Present, past and future elide and three twisting versions of one set of events combine to form an experience of great emotional power. The play made me surrender, totally and completely, to its spell. The laws of our world aren’t those of the world of Faith Healer …. I’ll never forget it.

Written by Brian Friel, Faith Healer comes to Adelaide in a production directed by Judy Davis and starring Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. Here, we try to get to the heart of its power.

At the beginning of Faith Healer, The Fantastic Francis Hardy talks about the profession of faith healing as one completely without boundary:

Faith healer - faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry.

Faith healing, then, is a lot like memory. It’s a lot like truth. Fallible. Unreliable.

Literature is filled with unreliable narrators. It’s a unique position to be put in as an audience member or reader. Artists often talk of theatre as a contract between audience and actor. Between on and offstage. It implies honesty. Certainty of terms. When a character speaks we take it as gospel. It is destabilising, then, when a writer exposes the spaces between truth and memory. Exposes our fallibility and our faults as chroniclers of our time. This exposure is what is at the heart of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.

When writing about Faith Healer, critic Lyn Gardner called Brian Friel’s work ‘a mysterious, unsettling thing, less like a play than a summoning. These four monologues, spoken by the three unreliable narrators, curl around each other like incense at an exorcism.’

In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, undoubtedly the most famous work of fiction with an unreliable narrator, no one else can see what the governess sees. In his classic story which could be a ghost story or could be about a woman’s descent into madness, the reader, through the eyes of the governess, is privy to her waking nightmare. In response to the book, Colm Toibin said, “The ghosts existed, it is true, only in the mind of the governess; the ghosts, more importantly, also give the reader the creeps.”

In Faith Healer, much like James’ novella, truth becomes fragmentary and the reader, the audience, sifts through memory and lies and becomes submerged, completely and totally, in the interior of the play. You don’t watch the action, but wade through it with the characters, play along with them, humour them, become sceptical of them.

This is a key idea in much of Friel’s work, who has said “while memory is about what has happened in the past, it’s also about what might have happened but never did.” Memory is not the truth, the ways in which we remember serve to prop us up, hide the ugliest parts of ourselves, help us forget something we don’t want to live through again.

Prapassaree Kramer writes, “Since the memory is subjective and personal, the narrator can shape the recollection in a form that they believe rings true to their perception of events, or fulfils their fantasy of what should have happened.” Memory, then, creates our identity, our understanding of ourselves. When that is rendered plural, false, it creates profound discord.

As you watch Faith Healer you’ll feel it get under your skin. Not in the way of James’ novella, no. It won’t give you the creeps. But it will make you question just who or what you believe in long after you leave the theatre.

Faith Healer plays at the Space Theatre from 26 September -13 October 2018. Tickets are available here.