Initially scheduled for a run in March 2020, but cancelled due to coronavirus, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer returns to the Abbey Stage more than 40 years after its Irish premiere. It is directed by Joe Dowling and stars Niamh Cusack, Aiden Gillen and Nigel Lindsay. The play, widely regarded as a masterpiece within the Irish canon, centres around the character of Frank Hardy, enacted by Gillen, who travels through Wales and Scotland, offering his services as a faith healer. The story is narrated through the interlinked perspectives of Frank, his wife Grace, incarnated by Cusack, and his manager Teddy, played by Lindsay. Ahead of this historic staging of Friel’s play, The University Times spoke to Craig Flaherty, a senior producer at the Abbey Theatre, about the production.
Flaherty described the development of the production as an “epic journey”. The play was due to premiere in March 2020 as part of a programme by Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, who previously directed plays at the Abbey. The production had just completed its fifth week of rehearsals and was about to move into the tech stage when it was cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. Flaherty, who joined the Abbey Theatre during the height of lockdown in September 2020, notes the air of determination within the company to bring his vision to life: “The whole team really wanted to try and get the production back to the stage.”
Further characterised by Flaherty as “one of the great Irish masterpieces of theatre”, he notes this production to be significantly important, since “there haven’t been many stagings of Brian Friel’s work in Ireland since he passed away six years ago”. Not only does this production see Joe Dowling return as director, after having directed the Irish premiere of the play in 1980, but John Lee Beatty, who designed the original set returned for this run too.
Speaking broadly on the importance of Faith Healer, Flaherty explains that “there are themes in the play that resonate in that it deals with a faith healer that is touring around Wales and Scotland playing to small houses”. Within this, he notes the presence of empty chairs on the set of the stage as harking back to “that time where we had an empty auditorium with empty seats that we weren’t allowed to have anybody in”. Moreover, in this thematic scope, Flaherty connects the plot which deals with “the plight of an artist wanting to perform” with his experience of “the lovely things that have come together in the play and the reality of presenting the play”.
Commenting on the experience of coming back to Faith Healer with coronavirus restrictions in place, Flaherty digresses that “we’re used to presenting work in COVID now” which has created a “really committed” team in the Abbey, “agile to making work and ensuring that we can get it onto the stage in the safest possible way”. He further deems this to have made the experience “almost second nature” within the constant background of restrictions and safety, which has created and necessitated an “incredible amount of trust that everyone has in each other”. “As the national theatre, we have a responsibility to ensure that the stages remain open and we continue to produce work and protect this work”, he adds.
The development process for Faith Healer was, according to Flaherty, a “really lovely process”, as well as being “fairly straightforward because the bulk of the work had been done”. Remembering his experience sitting in on a run-through the week before, Flaherty, who had never seen a live production of the play, felt “extremely privileged to see this great play with these amazing actors”. He adds that the stripped back context of the run-through, without lights, sounds or the set to enhance the performance, “is telling of a great piece of writing as it stands up on its own”.
Audiences can expect a “really well-crafted production that is delivered by incredible actors”. The audience watches the play unfold as “three intersections of the story crossover” from three different perspectives, constantly “piecing it all together”, which promises an engaging and intense production. Furthermore, as Faith Healer touches on themes of exile and homecoming, Flaherty predicts this aspect of the great Irish classic will particularly resonate with today’s audience, “given what we’ve come through in the isolation and the idea of people being stuck abroad and unable to come home”. Lastly, Flaherty hopes that audiences will be able to experience “the energy and the heart that went into getting this show where it is”.
Faith Healer runs from December 3rd 2021 to January 22nd 2022 on the Abbey Stage. Tickets can be purchased on The Abbey Theatre website.