Paul Carroll told David Hennessy about playing the lead Frank Hardy in the upcoming UK and Irish tour of ‘Brian Friel’s masterpiece’ Faith Healer.
The last time The Irish World encountered Paul Carroll, it was in April when the 47-year- old actor from Gorey, Co. Wexford was playing Brendan Archbold in Strike!, the production about the 1984 Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike.
We caught up with him recently to chat about London Classic Theatre’s new tour of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer which will take ‘Brian Friel’s masterpiece’ around the UK and Ireland from 5 September – 17 November.
Paul Carroll plays faith healer Frank Hardy.
Frank Hardy has a gift: 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.
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.
Paul told The Irish World: “I think every Irish actor of a certain age wants to play this part.
“Faith Healer is Brian Friel’s masterpiece. It’s known as his masterpiece.
“Many people say this is the one.
“Because it’s a series of monologues, I think if you were to do it in painting terms, if you were to walk through a gallery and Friel’s plays were all pieces of art, you’d get to Faith Healer, and it would just be a triptych of three portraits of three different people painted in the same spot, but they’re very different.
“I think that’s what he brings to this play.
“There were three people doing monologues. They were floating around together in Scotland and Wales and then ending up in Ireland, but their recollections, their experience, the atmosphere, their connection between each other is very different between the people.
“I think that’s one of the things that an audience or a reader or an actor should take away from this play: If you’re in the same situation with somebody, your experience of that situation is very different to the other person’s experience, depending on what their life experience is, what they’re taking from it.
“It is a dream role for an Irish actor of my age to be associated with anything of Friel’s.”
The National Theatre recently revived Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa with a cast that included Ardal O’Hanlon, Siobhan McSweeney, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Alison Oliver.
Like that story, there is a tragic element to Faith Healer.
“There’s tragedy in the piece.
“It’s storytelling at its finest and it’s three people telling stories.
“You are caught immediately as a viewer because you recognise, ‘Oh, hang on, there’s something not right, there’s something going to happen here and I need to keep listening to figure out..’
“And that’s what Friel does so well.
“He drops little hints and little pieces throughout the monologues for you to go, ‘Oh, God, something is about to happen’.
“And, ‘Something has happened that I want to know about’.
“So it’s a great piece in that sense.
“There’s fabulous storytelling and there’s good comedy in it as well, little drops of comedy as he can do.
“But all three of the characters have tragedy in them.
“Growing up in the last half of the last century, I would have seen people, I would have met people like Frank Hardy: These tortured artists – I’m sure you have as well.
“It’s storytelling at its finest and it’s three people telling stories.
“You’ve seen them whether they’re musicians, poets, actors, they’re people who are so into their vocation and so focused on their career that it saddens them and it makes them tragic somehow.
“You would find them in a bar and they’re looking for the answers to the questions of their lives in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and it’s the same with Frank.
“And that is Frank Hardy. He questions himself, he questions his role, he questions why he’s here, what he’s doing.
“What is the gift that he has? Has he got a gift?
“And how is it affecting people? And why are some people being affected and other people are not?
“Is he just a conduit for people’s faith?”
Speaking of tortured artists, is it sometimes a case of, what should be a gift is sometimes a curse?
“He speaks about it often in his monologues.
“He is cursed by these questions, by the questions that he has about his life and what he’s doing, and why he’s here.
“And what is this gift he has? So yeah, you’re right. It is-it can be a curse.”
I’m sure some say he is a conman. Frank is far from that, isn’t he? Although he questions his gifts…
“That’s a quote from the play. He does ask himself, ‘Am I a conman?’
“So well done for quoting the play.
“But then he quickly follows it with, ‘Of course not’
“These are questions that are going through his head constantly.
“And of course, a lot of people would assume he’s a conman.
“But as he says, there are people queuing up, and they come out of the shadows to his shows, and they come in sometimes just for the confirmation that they’re never going to be cured.
“Some people come for that confirmation.
“But what is interesting about him as a faith healer, also is interesting about people who come to be healed and how some people can be healed and some people just can’t.
“Obviously there are things that happen to people that a human wouldn’t be able to heal but then there are some things that, whether it’s through anxiety or stress – These days, we know a lot more about stress and anxiety and about how they can manifest as pain.
“I think faith healing can be looked at as mindfulness these days: You’re bringing positive energy into your life, batting away the negative, looking after yourself.
“These days, that’s a sort of faith healing, you’re having faith in yourself. You’re self healing.
“And I wonder back in the day was his role to be the person that they went, ‘I believe he can do it’, and that would take away their anxiety which would then take away the pain wherever they had it. I wonder is that it?”
Faith Healer premièred at Longacre Theatre, New York in 1979, before opening in London at Royal Court Theatre in 1981.
London Classic Theatre’s tour opens at New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme on 5 September before touring to a further nineteen venues across the UK and Ireland, concluding at Connaught Theatre, Worthing on 17 November.
Paul is joined in the cast by Gina Costigan who plays Grace and Jonathan Ashley who plays Teddy.
Have you ever seen a production of it?
“I’ve never seen it.
“I’ve always known about it, and I read it years and years ago.
“I don’t think as a younger man, I would have appreciated it as much as I do now.
“When I went back to it for the audition of this, I got a lot more from it.
“I’ve never seen a production, I’ve seen little clips on YouTube and stuff with famous actors portraying it but I didn’t want to go and start looking at other people doing it because I wanted to do it my own way and try and find it in myself.
“There is so much to delve into.
“There are little clues and little things that he drops in that I would imagine are hugely important to the story and to the characterisation.
“Like his relationship with his father.
“Friel drops in one sentence and he (Frank) says, ‘My father was sergeant of the guards, but that’s another story’.
“And he never goes into that story.
“But that obviously has dictated a lot of what this man has gone through in his life.
“He does go back and talk about his father later, but not specifically the fact that he was sergeant of the guards, so you can paint a picture of his relationship with his father and his mother.
“He has a very beautiful emotional relationship with his mother.
“A lot of stuff that goes on and goes wrong in our lives, can come down to what has happened to us as young children or the memories that we have of our parents.”
Paul didn’t get to see the recent Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre as it coincided with his production of Strike!
“All his (Friel) stuff, there’s elements of tragedy in them that is heartbreaking.
“Like in Dancing at Lughnasa he portrays a man who’s going through dementia.
“That’s so tragic, the frustration that person is going through trying to recall things and trying to get their memory back.
“It’s a great piece.
“He writes great characters that you want to play.”
Paul played two characters in Strike! Taking on the role of union leader Brendan Archbold and repulsive Dunnes manager Paul.
“What was good for me as an actor was I got to play two roles in that and they were opposite ends of the spectrum.
“That was a dream for an actor. I love multi-rolling, I love that.
“It was a such a pleasure to play in that production because especially with something that’s real, you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile.
“That play felt special and bringing remembrance to those people who did that, who stood out there on the picket line for two and a half years.
“I thought it was very important to tell that story and fair play to Tracy (Ryan) for writing it down.”
Many of the strikers came to see the play. Although Brendan had passed away, his sons came and gave Paul a poignant endorsement.
“Unfortunately he passed away a few years ago so I didn’t get to meet him but his two sons came to see the play and they were emotional.
“Nine of the other strikers came as well.
“For us, that was so weird because we had been researching these people for weeks and then suddenly to meet them, it was like gods had walked in.”
What was it like to play their late father in front of Brendan’s sons?
“I didn’t know that they were there really until the end, until they came up.
“Which I’m glad, but I just would have done what I always did.
“But they came up after and they said at times it was like watching their father on the stage.
“And that was the biggest compliment I could have gotten for the whole play.
“As far as I was concerned, I was portraying this man and as long as I had the soul of him and they said, ‘Yes, you did’.
“That was enough. That was all I needed to keep going on the play. It was very special.”
That must have been better than any review what Brendan’s sons said…
“Absolutely. And that’s how I felt at the time. Yeah, it was great.”
Paul chats to The Irish World from ‘sunny Crystal Palace’.
He has lived in London for 20 years.
This production represents a homecoming for him as well as his character.
“This is the first time I’ve performed in Ireland for about ten years so it’s a bit of a homecoming for me as well.
“In the play Frank is talking about a homecoming for him so it’s the same for me.”
The last time Paul performed in Ireland was a celebration of the life of Waterford musical theatre director Bryan Flynn.
Bryan played a big part in Paul’s early career.
“I did a show called Pentimenti which Brian directed and wrote, then I got Riverdance.
“I was the lead singer in Riverdance, and off I went on tour and that was the beginning of my touring life really.
“I toured with them for about two and a half years and then I moved to London after that.”
And now it’s not so much musical theatre or singing but ‘straight’ acting…
“Well, I always wanted to be an actor.
“I always just wanted to act.
“And people went ‘Hang on, he can sing’.
“And I went, ‘Oh, hang on, I can sing’.
“My father is a musician. It’s obviously in the family and in my bones so they were the jobs I got.
“I was very pleased to be able to get work through my singing voice but always my heart lay with the acting side of it.
“When I came back to London, I concentrated more on getting back to where I first started out which was comedy and acting and straight theatre, that sort of thing.”
Paul’s other theatre credits include a tour of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane as well as A Skull in Connemara at Nottingham Playhouse. His solo sketch show 40 Shades of Strawberry Blond played at Soho Theatre, Leicester Square Theatre and Brighton Festival.
But it all started with Brian Friel.
“One of my first plays that I ever did was a Friel, Lovers, Winners and Losers when I was about 16.
“I did it in Gorey over the summer.
“That was my first introduction to Brian Friel and for two actors of that age to do that piece – when you’re talking about a young couple who are lying on the top of a hill discussing their lives and she’s pregnant and what are they going to do and discussing their futures.
“And then, tragically, we realise that they both died. They both got into a boat after that and were drowned.
“And as a teenager performing that, I don’t think I really realised the full tragedy of it or the full scope of the emotions that those two people were feeling.
“I think I felt them on the stage through his dialogue but looking back and re-reading the piece, there was so much that I get now as a much older adult.
“This will be a lovely return to Friel with this piece.”
London Classic Theatre’s Faith Healer tours the UK and Ireland 5 September – 17 November, starting at New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
For more information, click here.