The Magic of Brian Friel

Scholar David Grant talks about the power of Faith Healer and the importance of Friel’s work.

Colin Friels as The Fantastic Francis Hardy in Faith Healer

David Grant quite literally wrote the book on Brian Friel. Here, we chat about the work of the legendary playwright and place Faith Healer in the context of his other work.

In a review of Faith Healer, it was said that Friel “rejected pyrotechnics for the raw magic of the raconteur: it is words here alone that conjure up worlds,” and that feels particularly relevant to Faith Healer. How does this idea stack up in the broader context of his work?

Well ironically I think the quotation is entirely wrong… but I can see how someone might think that. I mean, he obviously is a fantastic wordsmith. There’s no question of that. But the thing that interests me about his stagecraft is that it was a constant process of continual experiment. Almost every play tries something different. So going right back to his first big success Philadelphia Here I Come, the idea of putting the unspoken thoughts of the protagonist onstage as a second actor was pretty revolutionary at the time. But that was back in the ‘60s and kind of moved on from there.

In a play like Translations, having all the characters speak English but by some magic, having the audience understand that half of them are speaking Irish most of the time, it’s again an astonishingly brave thing to do. And bringing it a little more up to date, in Dancing at Lughansa the line ‘as if language was no longer necessary’ and he’s celebrating there, in a way, the capacity of dance to communicate much more effectively than language, which can often be misunderstood by people. So, yes, he uses words exquisitely well but he’s constantly struggling against their limitations.

But where Faith Healer fits into that … it’s unusual in that it is the most developed use of pure language. But you’ve got to ask yourself, how does it operate? The thing that astonishes me every time I see Faith Healer is just how attuned the audience becomes to all the little twists and turns… the inconsistencies in the various accounts of the events that are being talked about. So I think, yes, that quotation fits very happily onto Faith Healer but in that sense, I think it’s not typical of Friel’s work. And beyond the immediate subtlety of the language you find yourself asking, ‘why is there this unease?’ with what I’m being told … the unreliable narrator as it’s been called. And that must be about body language, that must be the whole kind of apparatus of performance and I do think that’s really central to Friel’s interest.

A huge part of Faith Healer is location, place … or perhaps a sense of dislocation. It’s set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, where Friel set a lot of his works. Can you speak to the importance of the town to his work?

The point is, it’s not meant to be a real place, Richard Pine said that it’s emblematic of all places. And for me, what’s exciting about the way Brian’s work is being received internationally- as a matter of fact that it will be performed in Adelaide, albeit to an audience that may have very strong resonances with Irish heritage. So for me the key to the small town of Ballybeg is that it takes the very particular experience of a closely blended community and presents it in a way that communicates universally through that magic thing I think we talk of as the human condition.

That idea of Ballybeg being nowhere and everywhere at the same time is very interesting.

When people describe their experience of Faith Healer, they always seem to linger on this idea of it being an incredibly strange, mysterious time in the theatre. Having spent so much time with the work, what do you think makes it so powerful?

It’s an astonishing piece of alchemy really … he returned to the monologue form in a later play called Molly Sweeney about a blind woman who had her sight restored, and it’s a similar sequence of long monologues and, to be honest, that play doesn’t work anywhere near as well.

When Friel was writing Faith Healer it was this astonishing period in 1979/80 when he was working on Aristocrats, he was writing Translations which is considered his masterpiece and he was writing Faith Healer. And, you know, buried within Translations there are references to the work of George Steiner and he is very interested in the mercurial nature of language. He asked a basic question: why did evolution create so many languages? Why do variants of language emerge when, you would think, that evolution would be pushing us toward a common tongue? And he concludes that it’s because it’s a protective measure. We can exclude outsiders because they don’t have a specific detailed understanding of how we happen to speak a specific language - how I speak English is different to how an Australian or an Englishman speaks English and it allows us to distinguish one another as being part of a different cultural group … so I think that was very much on his mind when he was writing Faith Healer.

I believe he brings that kind of heightened sensitivity to the detailed subtle nuance of language into that play and it is just magical. I often wonder how much of writing is intellectual and how much of it is intuitive but it seems to me that there was some kind of confluence of influences that were affecting Friel during that period that produced this piece of magic.

It is theatre at its purest … it is storytelling and I think there’s something still very magical about that for all the — to use your term — pyrotechnics that theatre relies on.

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