Rain is falling as we are introduced to the ‘Fantastic’ Frank Hardy, an itinerant performer, whose life and miraculous show lie between the “absurd and the momentous”. Es Devlin’s stunning set creates a box of brilliantly lit water that returns between each of the four monologues that make up this intense and intriguing revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play.
Stephen Dillane joins a line of famous names to tackle the title role. It’s a restrained performance, uncompromisingly demanding, carefully playing with the “sedation of incantation” that runs through the script: place names visited, adventures and traumas, are repeated in the softest tones. Hardy knows whether or not miracles will happen – that his success depends on chance – so his gift is also a curse.
We meet Hardy’s mistress and manager. As the former, Gina McKee’s accent is offputting at first – we’ve been told she’s from Yorkshire, and that’s not the only lie we discover from hearing her side of the story. The detail McKee invests in her scene makes it moving and engrossing. After these hear-a-pin-drop performances there’s some respite, thanks to Ron Cook’s appealing Cockney artistes agent. Though stories about a bagpipe-playing dog are funny, this isn’t comic relief. Cook presents a tired and disappointed man with subtlety.
The performances are awe-inspiring but the material is consuming to the point of claustrophobic and difficult because of its complexity. The drama comes from having three unreliable narrators, who lived together for many years but don’t meet during the play and are talking about events in the past. We see Hardy’s wife after his (possible) murder, and his manager after she has committed suicide, but the chronology is not explicit and how much time passes between scenes is opaque. Friel’s script shifts and changes and needs the lightness of touch that director Lyndsey Turner provides. A heavy hand could damage such first-class storytelling. Rendered so impeccably, the play is absorbing.
Until 20 August 2016\
Photos by Johan Persson