Colin Friels preaches from the mount on his love for Faith Healer, the show he never gets tired of performing.
Adelaide’s season of Faith Healer will not be the first time Colin Friels has trod the boards for the State Theatre Company South Australia. Indeed, Friels was one of the many highly successful actors to come through the company’s earlier ensemble.
“When I first got out of NIDA, I went down to the State Theatre for about 18 months,” says Friels. “That’s back in the 70s.”
Friels is candid on the phone with The Adelaide Review, noting that while he loves Adelaide, he wasn’t a fan of the last show he was a part of here, Mortido, which also toured to Sydney.
“I did a Jim Sharman show once too, and a real dog of a show down there about four years ago… Wonderful playwright, though, [it was] an Angela Betzien play.”
The candour with which Friels speaks serves to reinforce his love for the current Belvoir St Theatre production making its Adelaide debut. He speaks with almost religious fervour when discussing the show. It is his favourite play, from his favourite dramatic playwright Brian Friel (alongside Anton Chekhov), and he never gets tired of performing it.
“I love it intensely,” he says. “It’s so Celtic, so beautifully drawn. It’s a bottomless, endless view – an extraordinary revelation about what it is to be human.”
Faith Healer is noted for its unique structure composed of four monologues from three characters, and its deep, lyrical prose. Friels plays Francis Hardy, the show’s eponymous healer, and in his two monologues, alongside those of his wife Grace and manager Teddy, questions are raised as to the veracity of his healing power, life, death and memory.
After premiering in 1979, Faith Healer was at first a commercial failure, but has gone on to be recognised as one of Brian Friel’s best plays. It is, in Friels’ words, “a magnificent piece of work”.
Friels has been playing Hardy since October 2016 for the Belvoir St production. Directed by his wife and dramatic juggernaut Judy Davis, Friels says he has never played one character this many times, but he never tires of the role as his interpretation of Friel’s text shifts over time.
“It’s changing all the time,” says Friels. “It’s completely different every time, and that’s because you’re different every time you go back to it.”
Further, the space in which the show is performed has an enormous impact on its presentation, says Friels, citing a recent season at Melbourne’s Sumner Theatre as an example.
“It also depends on the space,” he says. “This time we’re going to a small space, and we were in a big space last time – a terrible theatre called the Sumner Theatre in Melbourne. It’s a horrible theatre. Really horrible, a dreadful place and it’s not conducive to anything, that space.”
Friels’ appreciation for a play so characterised by its monologue structure has also evolved as he sees the connections between its characters, and the changes that the other actors, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell, incorporate into their performances.
“The more I do the play, the more I realise that the monologues aren’t separate,” says Friels. “It’s very much an ensemble piece by three actors. I’m sure they’ll [Blackwell and Whyte] be like me. They’ve been away and they’ll come back and bring different things to it. Things seep into you. I’m a slow worker anyway, and it takes me a long time to grasp the nettle of what things are about.”
Friels’ enthusiasm doesn’t stop at the play either, as he raves about the addition of Adelaide’s Paul Blackwell to the cast as Teddy.
“We have your very own, the fantastic, wonderful, beautiful, brilliant Paul Blackwell,” says Friels. “He is amazing, beautiful and worth the price of two tickets alone, Blackwell, and of course Alison Whyte, say no more, but Paul is a legend. I’ve got a shrine too him. I love him.”
The mercurial nature of the play, which has received rave reviews in its seasons on the east coast, still leaves Friels in awe of its playwright, but never ceases to be a challenge.
“It is a privilege to come back to this play, an enormous privilege,” says Friels. “It’s terrifying because there’s a Hebrew stain, ‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’, which means that you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. This play finds me wanting all the time, as it’s bottomless and there’s no end to it.
“I just hope the audience enjoy our company and share our story with us. That’s all I want. If one person goes away thinking, ‘that was a quite an experience’ that would be wonderful.”
Thursday, September 26 until Saturday, October 13
Header photo: Brett Boardman