Donmar Warehouse – until 20 August 2016
FAITH, FAILURE AND THE GENIUS OF FRIEL
A veil of rain surrounds the stage where three narrators will appear, each with their own version of a shared life “shabby, bleak, derelict”. Yet, in Brian Friel’s eloquent profound vision, it is a life as heartshaking and important. Frank Hardy is an itinerant faith healer, huckster and mountebank working the Celtic fringes; the others his robust old-school vaudeville manager Teddy, and his mistress Grace, who ran away with him despite her father’s fulmination about “chicanery”.
And it is chicanery, mostly: except for the rare strange moments when something happens, and a miracle happens. Or ten miracles, on one never-forgotten night in a Welsh meeting-house. Otherwise, unrolling leisurely but gripping before us, there is an account of the bickering, broke roadside life in the shabby van, a career without breakthrough or redemption leavened by gleams of humour, even glory.
The form of the play was startlingly new in 1979: four monologues, the first and last from Frank himself, these sandwiched, amplifying or clear his mistress, wife (or widow?) and Teddy the manager. Each, as in life, misreports the other and the three central events: one a triumph in Wales, one a squalid tragedy in northern Scotland, one a terrible consummation in Ballybeg. Between them these three weave an account of their intertwined lives which becomes a meditation on charisma, spiritual yearning, flawed, thwarted or exuberant love.
Stephen Dillane is Frank, low-key, sardonic and troubled, half-philosopher half-drunkard, confused by his unreliable gift. Gina McKee is Grace, who we meet in the aftermath of a trauma we only slowly discover, talking of a love which “obliterated me, me who tended him, fed him, debauched myself..”. She tells of a child’s grave; but it is, startlingly, only the seemingly cynical Teddy who tells us that tale in shattering immediacy. Yet that comes only on the far side of an account of his life and philosophy of showbiz management which brings unexpected, almost shocking gales of laughter after the sombreness of the first half. Few comedy writers could have invented the saga of Rob Roy the bagpiping whippet; and I cannot imagine anyone better to create Friel’s Teddy onstage than Ron Cook. Dapperly rundown in a bowtie, Cook delivers a quite brilliant forty-minute monologue, taking us from rollicking cynicism about his travails with Frank (reckons he should have stuck to “something nice and easy like a whistling dolphin”), all the way to a painful, briskly understated sensitivity. When he lays out the harshness of Kinlochbervie and hints at the dark terrible Ballybeg moment, the house holds its breath. And then Dillane’s Frank is back: still with one unforgivable lie , but ascending to a strange sad dignity in his own grim redemption.
Lyndsey Turner’s cast cannot be bettered; the veil of rain and sparse props of Es Devlin’s design suggest just enough, never too much. It will haunt me for days and weeks.
Box office 0844 871 7624 to 20 August
Principal Sponsor: Barclays