Like its protagonist, Bristol Old Vic’s acclaimed production of Brian Friel’s 1979 play, Faith Healer, is casting its spell wherever it travels to. Director Simon Godwin speaks to Edmund Lee.
Simon, when did you first encounter this play?
I first encountered this play two years ago and as soon as I read it the question came: what do I believe in? The play is about faith; it asks the question: what do we believe in? Love, art, miracles. And it asks: what position does faith have in our contemporary world?
What are the factors behind your decision to direct it now?
As we live in an increasingly secular age we still have a yearning to believe, a yearning for something more than the everyday. Faith Healer explores the question of this yearning, this wish to believe in something bigger and greater and more spectacular than we encounter in our daily lives. It also asks the question: ‘can the role of art replace the role of the church’?
Have you watched the previous productions of the play?
I made a point of not watching any of the other productions, so I could come to the play completely fresh.
Can you tell us a bit about the casting?
Paul Hickey is a well-known and much-respected Irish actor whose work I’ve seen at the Royal Court and much admired. And, for me, I felt that he could bring a strength, a tenderness as well as a power to the part of Frank [the faith healer]. Richard Bremmer [who plays Teddy, Frank’s cockney manager] I’ve also worked with in London and was struck by his wisdom, experience and the extraordinary sense of history that, as an actor, he carries. And Kathy Kiera Clarke I knew would bring a fragility, poetry and passion to the part of Grace [the faith healer’s wife].
Do you agree with Grace’s description of the faith healer as ‘an artist’?
An artist is somebody who transforms one thing into another. In that respect, Frank is an artist in that he is attempting to transform the sick to the well and that is a metaphor for the action of transporting real life into something more extraordinary, richer and stranger. Transforming one reality into another feels like it’s the role of the artist in our lives today.
How do you direct your actors in giving the lengthy monologues?
The challenge with the monologues is for the audience to feel like they are the other character in the play, so I have always tried to encourage the actors to have a conversation with those who are watching. [The reaction has been] at times surprising us, at times seducing us, at times shocking us. But it’s always a dialogue between those onstage and those in front of it.
All three characters are unreliable narrators in their own ways. Do you have a version of the ‘truth’ in the back of your mind?
When two characters agree about one detail, it feels like that’s as close to the truth as we’ll ever get. But really that’s the question the play asks: what is the truth? Is there ever such a thing as objective truth? Can we ever agree about what really happened?
Personally speaking, did the play give you a new understanding about the concept of ‘faith’?
It made me understand that faith is a very potent, exciting but also dangerous force – and we must be careful what we believe in. Some things will lift us and transform us, and others will destroy us.
Is there any interesting experience from rehearsals that you may share with us?
For us, the rehearsals were a lot about trying to understand the world that Frank, Grace and Teddy share. I remember we even went to Llanblethian (Wales), the village that is mentioned in the play as the site of the miracles. So we tracked down the village hall that Brian Friel talks about. It is in fact now a rather well-heeled, affluent building that’s run by a vicar who drives a large BMW, which is very different from the picture that is created in the play. How times change!
On that matter, has Brian come to see the play? Did he say anything about it?
Unfortunately Brian is now elderly and travels very rarely out of Ireland, but his grandchildren came to see it and thought it was one of the best versions of the play they’d seen.
Faith Healer is at Arts Centre’s Shouson Theatre Mar 1-8. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.