Art of the monologue: prisoners of consciousness

Brian Friel's masterpiece, Faith Healer, could be credited with starting the trend for Irish theatrical monologues. Paul Taylor considers the compulsive fascination of the solitary voice
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The Independent Culture

This October, Dublin's Gate Theatre pulled off a coup: mounting an evening of new one-act plays by three generations of leading Irish writers. Middle-age was represented by the novelist and film maker, Neil (Crying Game) Jordan, born in 1950 and here making his stage debut. The most intriguing aspect of the venture, though, was the juxtaposition on the same bill of the oldest and youngest of the trio. For it would be hard to imagine the career of Dublin wunderkind, Conor McPherson (born 1971) without the precedent of the great 72-year-old dramatist, Brian Friel.

It was no surprise that McPherson's play took the shape of interwoven monologues addressed directly to the audience. That has been his preferred form since he leapt to attention with This Lime Tree Bower in 1996. Reviewing Port Authority, his latest work to reach England last February, I wrote: "I don't know whether Conor McPherson ever goes to confession these days, but if he does, it must be a red-letter day for the priest. However meagre his misdemeanours, this young Irish playwright would turn them into a spellbinding solo turn." Even when he produced, in his huge international hit, The Weir, a drama where the characters actually talk to each other rather than out to the stalls, he played to his instinctive strengths. That show is, in effect, a long sequence of competitive storytelling by the male barflies in a shabby, remote Irish pub. Their fanciful ghost-yarns are eventually silenced by the quietly horrific true tale that is delivered by the female newcomer whom they have been trying to impress.

The grandfather of this much-in-vogue mode – the work of genius that legitimised creating a play out of plaited soliloquies – is Brian Friel's 1979 masterpiece, Faith Healer. Tonight it is revived at the Almeida in a production by Jonathan Kent, with Ken Stott in the title role of a man caught in the grip of a capricious gift that he can neither comprehend nor control. Geraldine James and Ian McDiarmid play, respectively, the desperate wife and the chirpy cockney manager, who for 20 years trailed with him round the Celtic fringes where he strove, sometimes successfully, to exercise his magic. Through three conflicting accounts of that time, the play brilliantly demonstrates that you cannot disentangle what is creative and what is destructive in the faith healer's single-minded obsession.

Kent's revival stirs me to argue that when you view Friel's play in the light of the many works it has influenced, its lonely magnificence looks all the more striking. Take the latest monologue-drama to hit London: Zinnie Harris's Nightingale and Chase, presented at the Royal Court earlier this autumn. Harris is a talented young dramatist, as she proved with Further than the Furthest Thing, a piece about cultural displacement, inspired by the plight of evacuated Tristan da Cunhans. But Nightingale and Chase might have been composed with the express intention of confirming one's worst suspicions about plays constructed from spliced-together solo turns: that they are popular with dramatists because they sidestep the difficulties of dialogue, and popular with theatres because, requiring so few actors and so little decor, they are cheap.

In Harris's account of the way a female ex-prisoner fails to cope with her new liberty, there is no compelling thematic reason (apart from the hackneyed one of "non-communication") for the monologue mode. The form offers great expressive freedom to play with chronology, but Harris's ex-con and her partner simply (and boringly) take up the story where the other left off. The inner contradictions beloved of this genre (he describes a silent car journey home; she alleges he tried to shag her en route) don't amount here to anything more profound than the Mandy Rice-Davies philosophy of "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" And you never stop wondering: why are they telling all this stuff to a room full of people?

It's perhaps a question of nationality. Alan Bennett's superb Talking Heads plays have enjoyed continuing success on the stage, but television is their natural medium. His misfits would either shrink from being the life and soul of the party or entertain baseless delusions of social success. Better for them the camera's impassive gaze than the loud, buoying mirth of a live audience. But the Irish love the challenge of the craic. Hence the energy that passes between the speakers and the punters in, say, Mark O'Rowe's hilarious Howie the Rookie, where a pair of young, low-life Dubliners square up to the audience "as if", as one critic put it, "they were in a boxing match with an unseen contestant".

A talented writer such as O'Rowe can create arresting twists with this genre. Normally a man is the hero of his own monologue, a form which – in what's left unsaid or in the revealingly misreported tone of what others have said to the speaker – has an acute ear for the operations of self-deception. But in Howie the Rookie the first speaker becomes the tragic hero of the second character's monologue. The effect is like suddenly seeing a familiar figure from an unexpected angle.

The monologue, for dramatists such as McPherson, is a way of bringing home the loneliness and waste that lurk under the sociable, bantering surface of Irish life, and a means of making the hidden a potent presence. You get the impression, for instance, that it's the unseen women who really run the show in Port Authority, where the cross-generational trio of soliloquisers seem to be versions of the same Irish male psychology, at bottom unaltered by all the social changes of the last century. There is, though, a significant difference between Friel's Faith Healer and even the best of the plays it has inspired. In them, the interwoven monologue form is one very apt way of handling the material. In Faith Healer, it's an absolute formal necessity. The story of McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower could be shaken out of the consciousnesses of its speakers and adapted into the third-person movie, Saltwater. Such an exercise would be inconceivable with Friel's devastatingly structured play.

Director Jonathan Kent agrees. It would argue an objective truth and Faith Healer explodes that idea. The self-deceivings dramatised in most monologues presuppose that there's a more authoritative take on the speaker. Friel complicates things by creating a character who is genuinely insoluble to himself and others. "He recognises," says Kent, "that he may be a healer and he may be a charlatan and he may be both." That tantalising, baffling self-estrangement is what leaves the wife and the manager both magnetised to a magnificent obsession and resentful of the bloody-minded blinkeredness. The people he cures feel to the faith healer like his works of fiction, but the play suggests that works of fiction are what we turn each other into. Commitment is solitary. We live, as we die, essentially alone. Rehearsing the play, Kent found that it wasn't useful for the three actors to see each other often. It served the piece better to "leave them isolated in the characters' separate hells".

Faith Healer is obviously written by a man who is terrified of his own prodigious gifts and of the destructiveness of dedication. But if the eponymous Frank is a type of the artist (and of the Irish artist in particular), the play speaks to the wary, manic-depressive, isolated prisoner of consciousness in all of us. Ironically, the waywardness of inspiration that is part of its theme was demonstrated when Friel, 15 years later, composed another monologue play about faith, curing and blindness. Molly Sweeney, though, is an inert self-parody, a work of the will, not of the mysteriously inflamed imagination. It's fitting that, in more ways than one, Faith Healer is a great solo turn.

'Faith Healer' is at the Almeida Theatre, London, to 22 Dec (020-7359 4404)