Home Lifestyle Entertainment When a gift becomes a curse

When a gift becomes a curse

Artwork: Sebastian Nevols.

Rachel O’Riordan and Declan Conlon told David Hennessy about their new production of Brian Friel’s masterpiece Faith Healer at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

The last time The Irish World spoke to Rachel O’Riordan, artistic director of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, it was for the theatre’s 2021 revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane starring Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie.

We recently caught up with the director and the actor Declan Conlon to talk about their forthcoming production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.

Remarking that it was nice to be talking to Rachel again and both of them about another Irish piece of theatre coming to the Hammersmith venue, they are both to quick to say Brian Friel’s Faith Healer is ‘not just another Irish piece’.

And they are right.

Faith Healer has been described ‘Brian Friel’s masterpiece, lofty praise when you consider his other work includes Dancing at Lughnasa, Translations and Philadelphia Here I come.

Declan Conlon’s credits include the Brendan Gleeson film Calvary, Paul Mescal’s God’s Creatures and Clint Eastwood’s Here After.

His work on the London stage includes playing MacDuff in Macbeth at Queens Theatre and Owen McCafferty’s Quietly.

Declan plays Frank Hardy who has the gift of healing.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Hardy and his wife, Grace, travel to remote corners of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  Accompanied by manager Teddy, they move from village to village, bringing an unpredictable mix of theatricality and the spiritual.

The sick, the suffering and the desperate come to him in search of restoration, a cure.

- Advertisement -

Using four monologues to interweave the stories of three intriguing characters, Friel takes the audience on an extraordinary journey of shifting perspectives and uncertain memories.

Justine Mitchell, whose screen credits include Smother, Conversations with Friends and Derry Girls, plays Grace. It was only last year that Justine starred in another Friel classic when she was part of the cast for the National Theatre’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Nick Holder, whose credits include Peaky Blinders and Anna Karenina, plays Teddy.

“This is one of the greats,” Declan says.

Rachel adds: “I’ve never directed Brian Friel before and I always wanted to direct a Brian Friel play.

“I love the play.

“I think it’s got something to say about now.

“I think the idea of one empirical truth that is the only truth is something that is under conversation at the moment.

“He wrote this play in the 70s and he was living in Derry and in Muff at that time.

“As a playwright, as an artist, he’s soaking up the atmosphere of what’s around him as he writes anything.

“While he was writing this play, there was the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland, including Bloody Sunday.

“I think in the play is a plea for letting go of the idea of being right and moving past the idea of your own narrative being the only one that’s important, letting go of that idea.

“That’s a small part, I think, of what the play’s about but I think it informs the play in some way.

“It’s not what the play is about but I think it’s sort of the inspiration for him to write it.

“It’s in the title, faith healer, heal your faith, let faith heal you, as well as it being about Frank who is a faith healer.

“As an artistic director in West London, we have a really established Irish community.

“West London has always had a really large proportion of Irish immigrant people.

“I sometimes wonder is it just because it’s the first bit of London you get to when you come in off the boat when you’re coming in from Wales?

“I wonder is it that and then there’s obviously all the building work that went on around here but certainly in Shepherds Bush and in Acton where I live and here as well in Hammersmith, there is a really established Irish community.

“There’s the Irish Cultural Centre literally over the road, so it’s also programming for that part of our local community.”

Rachel O’Riordan at work in rehearsals with actor Nick Holder. Rehearsal pictures: Marc Brenner.

Has it always been a role you’ve wanted to play, Declan? “Yeah, I think I would have to say for quite a few years because it’s a masterpiece.

“One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read by an Irish playwright. So yes, it’s one of those ones.

“And it’s also for that reason, very nerve racking because you’ve got the McCanns and all these people that have done it originally.

“You think, ‘Oh Jesus, I don’t want to go near that because of that’.

“On the other hand you think, ‘If somebody like him found what he found, there must be so much to explore’.

“So, yes, it’s a beautiful play and I’ve wanted to have a crack at it for a long time.

“Rachel very, very graciously and kindly gave me the crack at it.”

Rachel adds: “I’m not gracious or kind, Declan is one of Ireland’s great actors and known to be.

“It was a great relief to me, a great delight to realise he hadn’t played it before so that he could do it here.

“I think there’s something brilliant as well about Declan playing the part in London rather than in Ireland, and also for audiences in London to see one of Ireland’s great actors right here in Hammersmith.

“It’s a real treat, we’ve got Irish theatre royalty in this building so I’m very excited about that as well in terms of being able to invite audiences into this beautiful theatre to see acting of this quality.

“It’s a coup for us to have Declan here.”

Declan Conlon in rehearsals with Justine Mitchell in the background.

“No pressure,” Declan jokes in response.

“The beauty of the play as a piece of theatre is that there is no leading part in this play.

“They’re very much a triumvirate.

“There’s no lead in this.

“It’s a different challenge in lots of ways.

“It’s a different challenge from other plays in that each actor is on the stage on their own.

“You never act, you’re never with another actor on the stage, the three stories are told individually by each individual actor.

“I take the comparisons between the Hamlets and all the other great parts, and it’s a great part no question, but it’s slightly different.

“You’re playing to an audience, you’re telling your story to an audience.

“You’re not reacting to the same degree that you would in a play where you’re playing with somebody else.

“You’re driving the story, you’re telling the story, you have to find all your motivations for everything that you say and why you’re saying it yourself and the person you’re addressing, the people you’re addressing are these amorphous figures in the dark.”

Is it a different rehearsal process in that way, so because it’s not so much about how you react, as you say, with Justine or, or Nick?

Declan says: “We’re still in the process of sitting around the table and it doesn’t feel as though we’re in a play where three people are going to be playing the story on their own.

“Feels like the three of us are discussing this play and our interactions and our relationships and the contradictions between our stories and all of the layers.

“It’s like an onion, this play.

“Everybody is telling similar stories from completely different viewpoints.

“They have different memories. It’s a play about memory and how reliable is memory? To what degree do we create our own memories, create our own narrative?

“Who is telling the truth? Two people in a similar situation, many years later, who is remembering the truth of what actually happened?

“Each person’s story is very, very much equally important.

“It’s by no means Frank’s play.

“Frank is kind of the nucleus in a way that the others sort of orbit around, given that he is the faith healer.

“It’s called Faith Healer and Frank is the man who has this gift, curse, whatever you want to call it.”

It should be a gift but it does become something of a curse as these things often do, isn’t that right?

Declan: “Yeah, it’s certainly not all positive for him.

“I mean, he describes very articulately in the play how having it means his life is rotted and poisoned with questions because he’s not at peace with it at all for many reasons.

“There’ll be some reasons to do with his own upbringing, his own psychology, his own shame, his own lack of self belief, his own arrogance, his own ego.

“And where they play.

“They play in tiny little halls and on the periphery.

“Rachel said it beautifully today. They seem to skirt the countries, the islands.

“They dot around Wales and Scotland, they never move into the centre of anything.

“They don’t play in England either, they only play Wales and Scotland and eventually come back to Ireland.

“They are living out of the back of a van.

“Their lifestyle, their life, this work, they’re impoverished really, they’re kind of hobos.”

He’s probably tortured by this gift/ curse in the way that we have seen many famous people tortured by their own gifts…

Rachel: “It’s hard to live up to yourself.”

Declan: “It is because it doesn’t always work.

“He says in the play nine times out of ten it doesn’t work. Nine times out of ten nothing happens.

“And so the questions, the self doubt, the tormenting, agonising, nagging doubts: Is he a fake? Is it real? What’s real? What’s not real? He talks about trying to silence or still those questions with whiskey, so that’s added into the mix and that doesn’t help.

“The play operates on many levels and on another level it’s to do with creativity, what happens when you have- like Friel for example as a writer- I imagine there must have been some strain of that in it as well.

“He’s a writer, what happens when he can’t write? He did have writer’s block quite often, couldn’t write, couldn’t do anything.

“What happens then? Who are you when you can’t do what it is that you do?

“Because you’re not Brian Friel, you’re Brian Friel the playwright.

“When you can’t do that, who are you? What are you?

“What’s underneath when your obsession is taken away? When your obsession isn’t working, who are you as a person?”

Rachel says: “I think a lot of people who work in showbusiness would relate to that.”

Declan: “And how does that impact on the relationships in your life?

“Because the relationships in the play, they’re tortured.

“Gracie his wife says he calls her his mistress, he doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s married to her.

“The poison that’s generated by the inability to do what it is he’s doing, the self hatred bleeds into the relationships and bleeds into torturing other human beings mentally. It’s a dangerous territory.

“Gracie suffers very particularly in the play which is articulated very graphically and very appallingly and to do with having a child in the back of a van in a village in Scotland.”

Rachel: “There’s also a presentation, exploration of what it is to be a woman in a relationship with a narcissistic man.

“The way Grace tries to understand it is that there’s Frank and then there’s his talent.

“They’re almost these two separate entities and her job is sort of in the middle of the two of them which is exhausting. It’s an exhausting place to be.”

Declan: “It is because Frank and his talent are always at war with each other and Gracie is in the middle.

“She’s like a punchbag in the middle of it, not physically but she loves Frank.

“She describes it in the play.

Justine Mitchell starred in The National Theatre’s Dancing at Lughnasa last year, now she is appearing in another Friel piece.

“She loves him and if he could be the same person without that talent, without that thing, without that gift/ curse, she would take it away.

“But she also describes that Frank knows she would do that and therefore Frank doesn’t trust her because he knows she would rob him of this thing even though it tortures him but it’s his identity.

“So by the very fact of her being there, he knows she’s a threat to it in some degree as well.

“It’s a very complicated play.

“I mean, it’s extraordinary that Friel manages to pack so many different meanings and things into what is ultimately quite a short piece.”

You were saying Rachel, you think the play has something to teach us about today?

“I think so, I think great plays do.

“My feeling is that great art, great work, great plays do speak to the now because they’ve got this timeless quality about it.

“I can’t help but think when I’m thinking of this play about what’s happening in the north of Ireland now, about Stormont finally being occupied again and the fact that to move forward in life there needs to be a letting go of the sense of being right.

“I think there is a great grace in knowing that it is possible to respect someone’s opinion even if it differs from your own.

“I think that is a timeless and vital quality of civilisation and having a civilised society.

“To say, ‘I don’t agree with you but I don’t hate you for what you believe’.

“Not having a definitive rightness, I think, is important.”

Does it say something about the Irish immigrant experience?

Rachel: “I think it definitely speaks to the Irish experience of being an emigrant and an immigrant and the idea of being displaced and feeling your identity is hard to catch hold of sometimes.

“Since I’ve moved to London, I’ve become aware and very much like the idea of people talking about being London Irish.

“I love that, this idea of this duality, this identity that they are Londoners, and they are also Irish.

“It’s a complete identity.

“I think Irish identity for lots and lots of reasons is one that is quite tricky.”

Declan: “There’s certainly a sense of ‘the other’.

“Ireland, certainly in the 60s, we’re talking about a very conservative society.

“If you’re ‘other’..

“Frank is not ordinary, his gift isn’t ordinary, what he does isn’t ordinary, that’s not always something that’s welcomed.

“A lot of people who are like that have to leave and there’s kind of a shame, or they’re made to feel a shame around being ‘other’ in some way.

“That’s the same thing, I think, for people who are in the arts, and suddenly, ‘What’s your real job? What do you do in the daytime?’ There’s an attitude to it.

“It’s a little bit nonconforming and therefore, it’s viewed with some suspicion.”

You say you have never directed Friel before, Rachel. Why is that? “I don’t really know why I’ve never directed any of Friel’s work before actually.

“I could have had the opportunity because one of the great joys of being an artistic director is I get to choose what goes on stage, so I could have here and in Cardiff where I was before.

“Brian Friel knew my dad (novelist) Robert Welch.

“They were friends and unfortunately, my dad and Brian are both now dead.

“I wonder is it something to do with that?

“I don’t know. Actually, I don’t know.

“It’s a good question because I love Friel’s work and I’ve been directing for 20 years.

“How come I haven’t? I don’t know.”

Rachel and Declan worked together previously in Come On Home at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Did you think of Declan immediately when you thought to do this, Rachel?

Rachel: “Oh God, yeah.  Totally.

“Of course I did.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Declan again.

“There’s not every actor who can do it because actually holding stage on your own for so long, it’s not easy.

“Not everybody can do it.

“Or who would want to, I suspect.

“Takes nerve.”

Faith Healer runs at the Lyric Theare in Hammersmith 14 March- 13 April.

For more information and to book, click here.



- Advertisement -