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Keeping it Friel

Justine Mitchell in character as Gracie. Pictures: Marc Brenner.

Justine Mitchell told David Hennessy about starring in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer just a year after she was part of a huge revival of Dancing at Lughnasa

Having starred in The National Theatre’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa last year, Justine Mitchell has found herself back in the great Irish playwright Brian Friel’s fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg playing Grace in Faith Healer at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

But her experience of Friel does not end there.

She has appeared in Aristocrats and his adaptation of Three Sisters, both at the Abbey.

And the first time Friel adapted Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Justine was in the title role so she actually got to work with the great man who passed away in 2015.

Justine will also be familiar to viewers of Conversations with Friends, Smother or even her appearance in Derry Girls.

In Rachel O’Riordan’s Faith Healer, Justine plays Gracie. Frank Hardy the titular faith healer has a gift or a curse and doesn’t know himself which one it is. But it has no such ambiguity for Grace. If she could take that gift of healing from him, she would for it would relieve them of their hard life of travelling around small towns and villages to ‘perform’.

Declan Conlon plays the role of Frank while Nick Holder completes the cast as his manager Teddy.

You’re returning to Friel so soon after Dancing at Lughnasa last year..

Justine told The Irish World: “You can’t get luckier than that really.

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“But I hadn’t done any Friel for ages.

“Hedda Gabler would have been 2008, so Lughnasa was my first Friel since 2008.

“They’re like really good buses that you want to get on.”

A series of monologues, the play starts with Frank telling his story. Then Grace takes the stage.

Grace is traumatised by what she has gone through.

Does it take it out of you?

“It’s a little tiring but you get a lot from the audience because, weirdly, although they (the characters) look like they’re alone, and they are alone as people, this is their chance to speak to you.

“And the energy that comes from the audience is very nourishing and kind of revivifying.

“No, it doesn’t take it out of you. It’s a total privilege to do.

“She’s trying.

“She is trying to stay alive, so she’s terribly courageous.

“I like to look at the positives in her because she’s a survivor and she’s very courageous woman.

“She’s been through a lot and still trying to fight through, to be that resilient.”


Declan Conlon plays Frank.

You say the crowd give you a lot, do you feed off the laughs Grace gets from the audience because, perhaps surprisingly, she gets plenty of those.

“She’s witty, she is witty and she’s perspicacious.

“She has some very good insights into being alive and about Frank because often he says one thing and she’s kind of saying the opposite, and then Teddy comes along and gives another insight.

“So, yes, there is that but even if you’re not hearing anything, I think we all hold each other in the silence. It really feels like we’re holding each other in it.

“I know it’s tough, but I think she does display resilience and I think people react well to that.

“She’s not all just like, ‘Oh, mo chroi, mo chroi, I’m done’.

“There’s fight in her, she’s feisty.

“The audience are listening and creating story for us as well.

“Because you never see us together, but you do.

“Once you get to Teddy, you start putting the people that you’ve met into his stories and you are the fourth character.

“There are three characters on stage but the audience comes along and you’re that fourth character, you make the story for us. You create it in your head.

“I think that’s Friel, it’s so clever.

“And they’re ready to tell their story because it’s testament, isn’t it?

“You want to get your side told.”

Frank sets the scene but it soon becomes evident that Grace has a different side to the story.

For one thing he says Grace is from Scarborough, she comes out and is Irish.

“I love the way he goes, ‘Scarborough or Knaresborough, I don’t know which, they all sound alike’.

“What’s so funny is, as we said in rehearsal, some people in this country sometimes go, ‘Ballydehob or Ballyshannon. I don’t know, they all sound alike, Bally this Bally that’.

“I love the way he goes, ‘Scarborough or Knaresborough, I don’t know, they all sound so alike’.

“It’s his little dig, you know?

“She’s plainly not from Yorkshire but he is contacting the vulnerability within her because she is from the North, from a very privileged background and I think she never felt as Irish as perhaps everyone else did on the island.

“When she comes to Britain they all think she’s Irish but a particular type of Irish and so she really doesn’t fit in anywhere.

“I think she has a complex relationship to her nationality which translates into her identity.”

The play looks at how two people in the same situation can remember the same event very differently.

When the faith healer and his companions return home to Ireland, a night in a pub ends in awful tragedy.

The way Frank tells the story, he is challenged to cure a man’s crooked finger. He also says that the four men, remaining from a wedding party, spoke to them first.


Nick Holder plays Teddy.

Grace remembers Frank approaching them and he saying he would heal the man’s finger.

“That’s so well noticed because no one’s ever said that.

“So true.

“He says that he is challenged by Donal and Donal says, ‘Fix that, Mr. Hardy’.

“And I say that he leaned over to him and said, ‘I can fix that, I can cure that finger of yours’.

“It does make a difference who started it because that leads to whatever it’s led to, an extreme act of violence.

“It’s important who ignited that.

“I say he went over to them.

“He says they had to go and get McGarvey, the young fella in the wheelchair, but I say there was a wheelchair there from the start.

“We obsessed over that question: Why? What’s the difference?

“I think in Frank’s dissembling, in his massaging of facts, he is trying to get at a deeper truth and we all know that in all great art we tell stories which are artifice in order to get to a truth.”

Frank is something of a Walter Mitty character, isn’t he? Do you think he knows he’s lying or is it more that he lives in a world of his fantasies..

“I think you’re right.

“She says exactly something similar to that.

“She says, ‘It wasn’t that he was simply a liar, it was much more complex than that’.

“And that it was some element of perfectionism of excellence, that he was just adjusting reality the whole time to some sort of metric that his heart is in control of.

“He made his father all those different professions.

“He didn’t make him a Duke.

“He made him a stonemason, a gardener, a bus driver, a musician and a guard.

“He didn’t make him a duke or a judge but he was never happy with the way things were, what is.

“He was always striving for things to be different for some reason.

“I mean Friel’s relationship with uncertainty and with doubt and not knowing and questions, and leaving us with questions is agonising, but it’s also terribly sweet as well, sweet as in delicious because we’re having chats like this.
“I have chats with my friends about stuff like this all the time.

“People fascinate us when we don’t understand them, ‘Why did that happen?’

“And so much of violence is about that, so much senseless violence. You see a school shot up or in the height of the troubles all those senseless dreadful killings and you’d go ‘why, why, why?’

“We lived in that why, didn’t we?

“And sometimes you just get to the ineluctable kind of conclusion that, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know’.”


Frank has a gift but says himself nine times out of ten, nothing happens..

“But if it happened once, it could still happen again.

“That’s why he at the beginning, I think, presents as quite a reliable narrator because if you’re a snake or a salesman you’re never gonna say, ‘This stuff doesn’t work’.

“But he’s a faith healer that’s getting up on that stage goin, ‘Nine times out of ten it didn’t work’, so you’re inclined to believe him.

“Usually those sort of people go, ‘It’ll work, it’ll work, it’s definitely going to work. I sell hope, I sell hope’.

“But he goes, ‘It’s not going to work’.

“I don’t know when we were touring around whether he did that.

“He’s like hope in hope, faith in faith, ‘Is it faith in faith, is it me imbuing you with faith in yourself to cure yourself, or is it you having the faith in me? Or is it outside of us?’

“I mean, he just doesn’t know.”

He doesn’t understand himself how it works but he says he knows when it isn’t going to..

“That’s a terrible thing when he says that.

“He goes, ‘I always knew when it wasn’t going to work’.”

You have to ask why Grace did not get away from such a narcissistic man, particularly if he treated her so badly at times. Whey could she not leave? Even when she did get away, she did not stay away..

“It’s quite binary for her.

“She either goes home or she stays with him.

“She couldn’t see that there was a whole other spectrum there.

“She was a qualified solicitor.
“She could go and practice surely.

“But there was something in her background.

“The hints are her mother was terribly fragile mentally and in the end died by suicide, and that her father was this man who was a judge obsessed with order, very much of the establishment in Northern Ireland and I think not a particularly loving presence.

“So I don’t know how much parenting she got.

“That sort of parenting may leave you with a person who makes the kind of choices that she did which is to turn her life over and give it all up to travel with these two men in a van around Wales and Scotland.

“You fall in love with someone who isn’t perhaps so good for you.

“That happens and it doesn’t matter how clever you are.

“It’s nothing to do with smarts.

“It’s nothing to do with how you see yourself, what you think you deserve and think.”

There is that moment when Grace is having the baby in the van and Frank walks away up the hill, leaves Teddy to be there for her. I don’t think Frank can even admit that to himself.

“They never talked about it afterwards.

“He never mentions it and she won’t even countenance believing that he did that.

“She can’t think about that but I think deep down she also understands why: Because he couldn’t heal her. He couldn’t save this stillborn baby. He couldn’t.

“There’s that brilliant moment when he goes home to his mum who’s dead and there’s that moment of terror that he thinks, ‘Oh, she’s not dead yet and he(dad)’s hoping I can heal her’.

“And you think, ‘Oh God, the dad is gonna ask him to, ‘You’re a healer, you’re supposed to be able to’.’

“And he knows he won’t be able to help his mum.

“I imagine when Gracie goes into labour he thinks, ‘I can’t, I know what’s going to happen and it’s not good. I have to walk away’.

“Not that that’s excusing him in his behaviour but intellectually I think that’s what’s going on.

“And Gracie, I think, on some level understands that because she does kind of understand him or certainly attempts to.”

Frank continues to run from himself in a way, doesn’t he? Rather than face up to his own actions, he keeps moving on to the next small village or town..

“Yeah, if you stand still, the voices are louder.

“At least if you’re moving, they’re a bit blurrier. You can turn down the volume a bit but they always get him in the end: The questions.”

Do you think Grace is similar to your character in Dancing at Lughnasa? Grace is traumatised when we meet her but I wonder if before she didn’t go through it all she wasn’t too dissimilar..

“You know, I’ve never made the comparison between her and Kate.

“There are so many good comparisons to make.

“There’s a feeling of being trapped and desperate to escape but I think Gracie is almost braver in a way maybe because she does go.

“She’s certainly more impulsive.

“I think Kate has more of a handle on her- Not a handle, but a more of a lid- On her emotions and her impulses.

“I think Gracie works out of impulse a lot more than Kate, but there definitely are comparisons to make.

“They’re different social class and different religion and different background but certainly there’s overlapping.”

Like two characters in Dancing at Lughnasa, Grace ends up meeting a sad fate in London.

“Absolutely, the thought of Gracie in a flat in Paddington in 1972.

“She had a roof over her head.

“Rosie and Aggie didn’t even have that, they were on the streets.

“What was so extraordinary about doing Lughnasa in the Olivier was that Friel had got the idea to do the play just walking over the bridge there and that had cardboard city as it was sort of called at the time where a lot of the unhoused people ‘lived’.

“‘Lived’, existed.

“They were walking over the bridge and he said to Tom Kilroy, ‘You know, I had two aunts who died here in London’.

“He had writer’s block at the time and Tom just said to him, ‘You gotta write a play about that’.

“And when Tom Vaughan- Lawlor then said what had happened to Rosie and Aggie, we just got a chill every night that everyone in the auditorium knew that it was only steps away from here that that’s where the real Mundy sisters died.”

There is similar tragedy in this play, isn’t there? Dancing at Lughnasa hits hard because we see Rose and Agnes large as life on stage while hearing about their demise.

Here we see Grace and then…

“Yes, it’s similar.

“It’s beautiful. He (Friel) was such an empath, such a compassionate writer.

“These are small, quiet tragedies that happen without much fanfare. People’s lives blow up.

“He understood that.

“He’s good at that.”

Was it fun to work with such a cast?

“What a cast.

“We absolutely loved doing that show and the dance every night, you could just feel the house shake.”

When are you doing your next Friel? “We’ll see

“We’ll miss this now.

“It’ll be sad to finish.

“I already know that.

“His son and daughter were here on opening night.
“That was beautiful.

“I had met them at Lughnasa.

“And (Friel’s wife) Anne actually came over for Lughnasa, and they just loved the show which was really, really great.

“When you see them it’s just a connection to him, isn’t it?”

Justine in rehearsals.

What was he like to work with? “He was so funny and warm and unassuming. Impish. He was funny. Really, really funny.

“One day he said, ‘How are you doing?’

“I said to him, ‘I’m feeling a bit tired’.

“He goes, ‘You can sleep when you’re dead’.

“Why was I saying that to a really busy writer who was much older than me?

“Ridiculous, I didn’t know I was born.

“He was just lovely.”

I bet they are special memories now.

“Yeah, I appreciated meeting him back then.

“We all did.

“We knew how brilliant he was.”

Faith Healer is at the Lyric in Hammersmith until 13 April.

For more information and to book, click here.

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