Almeida Theatre at King’s Cross, Matinee (Opened November 22, 2002)
While its home in Islington is undergoing extensive renovations, the Almeida company is camped out in an abandoned warehouse (no; I discover from a review of an earlier piece that it is a coach station) hardly five minutes’ walk from the Kings Cross rail and tube stations. They carry on in full form, with no apologies tendered or expected. This production of Friel’s Faith Healer is the second I’ve seen in this venue, the first, last March, being a problematic production here of Wedekind’s Lulu. Nothing daunted, the Almeida has deftly employed a cavernous stage area to mount a play that could fit comfortably into a postage-stamp-sized performance space. The first three scenes, or “Parts,” as Friel labels them, are done front and center, with only a few properties — a table, a small fridge, an easy chair, a floor lamp — to suggest an ordinary, drab interior. Each part has just one character: Part One – the title character, Frank, a “healer” who is part con man, part miracle worker, who tells us somewhat ambiguously and, we subsequently discover, in a self-serving and biased way, the story — or part of it — of his final life crisis and demise; Part Two — Grace, his wife, in long-term rebellion against a self-satisfied upper-middle-class father and deeply in love with Frank; Part Three — Teddy, the Jack-of-all trades alcoholic who served Frank and Grace as chauffeur, valet, rescuer, ersatz father (for Grace), front man and manager (for Frank), and general factotum. Thus for Parts One through Three. We sense the story has come to rest in uncertainty, by the end of Part Three; but Frank returns, in Part Four, to fill in the partly gruesome details of his murder by a quartet of drunken toughs, one of whom has had his crippled hand cured by Frank, who after that occurs is now faced with a much greater challenge of raising a quadriplegic out of his wheelchair, a task he knows he cannot accomplish and yet one that summons all his resolve to face what he seems to know will be the fatal consequences of failure.
These narratives are given such vibrant, tensile life by Friel that perhaps any competent actors could capture their life-like credibility well enough. In the case of the three actors in this production — Ken Stott as Frank, Geraldine James as Grace, and Teddy by Ian McDiarmud — the results are stunningly good. In a city full of more than merely competent actors, these performances stand out for their great emotional qualities, beautiful pacing and timing, and authentic identification with the characters. One wants to live in London indefinitely in order not to miss any performances by any of these actors, especially if directed by Jonathan Kent, joint Artistic Director of the Almeida.
The play, dating from 1980, is given the finest, most sympathetic of revivals here. It is Friel at his best. The “through line” is tough and dramatic — paradoxically all the more so because it dramatizes the narration of an action long since ended. In fact, the real essence of this drama is the “action” that eventuates in the minds of the audience itself. Not long into the play we begin to realize that the circumstances and events narrated here retrospectively have already happened and are finished, done with; dead. The “action” is the process in which we as the audience attempt to make sense and meaning of what has happened. The task is the more difficult because each character has his or her own version — his or her own memory — of what happened. The play requires us simultaneously to sort out and bring together the conflicting or varying accounts of what happened into a coherent, “true” story and to engage ourselves — almost lose ourselves — in the subjective felt experience embodied in each of the narratives. This we do, and the double process engages and holds us, rapt, from beginning to end, in this intermission-less performance. The transitions between Parts are accomplished quickly and seamlessly, by means of a ragged traveler curtain that is hardly closed before it is opened again, to reveal the changed setting. My recollection is a bit vague, as I am now writing at this length of a month after the fact. But I seem to remember that the setting for Frank’s two monologues was a meeting hall, with rows of chairs for the persons who, drawn by the advertisements of miracles performed by the famous faith healer, have come to see him perform in person. This we get first and last. Kent has staged the last scene with Frank at the top of the stage, his back somewhat turned to us, before he comes down into the central playing area. The distance is long enough so that Frank seems a shadowy, diminished character for a moment before he appears closer in, as large as life — or larger.
What are we to make of his reports of the miracles he actually performed, and of the sums of money he took in from awed, grateful beneficiaries of his powers? There is an air of … I’m not sure what to call it, in all of this. Doubt? Suspension of disbelief? We who do not believe in miracles are asked to accept that, somehow, Frank had powers — limited but real and efficacious nonetheless — of a preternatural kind. Or should we, alternatively, decline to believe what this charismatic man tells us occurred, much after the fact? We are, it finally appears, seeing the ghost of Frank, not Frank himself. What, finally, are we to make of the past?
Whatever we ultimately make of it, this is a powerful, compelling play, superbly well acted. It held a large audience silent and deeply engaged. The last part, especially, was effective. I had not noted, in the program, that there were four parts. When Frank came back again, in Part Four, it felt almost like an epilogue; the indeterminate, ambiguous story had been, I thought, told in full — in all its ambiguity, and now we were to be presented with something else. What could it be? It was a sort of “clarification” after the fact. Now we were going to get the real truth of the matter. Much realistic, circumstantial detail ensued, and yet even while we listened to all the plausible details surrounding what happened inside and outside that bar on Frank’s last night, we felt that perhaps we were being conned once again. Here was Frank being given one more chance to convince us of the truth of what happened. Could we believe him? We didn’t know. The more circumstantial detail that was forthcoming, the more we felt we needed to resist giving our assent to what was being told. And yet, and yet – we felt almost like Grace and Teddy, who each had told us of how irresistible Frank was, saturnine and self-centered though he was. Charismatic, yes: he could command assent and belief from his auditors and from his followers as well, troubled though they were by his callous disregard for them, his aura of being a man with a mission who must not be trifled with nor thwarted in any way. There seemed to be a metatheatrical element emerging in the performance here, toward the end — almost as if Brian Friel himself were a sort of healer, part charlatan, part miracle worker, who had come to us tonight (though it was mid-afternoon, London time) to crave our assent and to call from us our belief in the transcendent worth of his enterprise — and, not so incidentally, the cash we had laid out for tickets admitting us to this miraculous show.