By his own admission, George Costigan is no miracle worker. The Salford-raised actor still best known to many as the sleazy inner city lothario in Alan Clark’s 1987 big-screen version of Andrea Dunbar’s play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, prefers to put his faith in the work he’s given, and it is only the writing in a script that allows him to breathe life into it. Sometimes it works, he says, sometimes it doesn’t.
So it goes in Faith Healer, the late Brian Friel’s mighty dissection of the heart and soul of Frank Hardy, the eponymous healer of the play’s title, who travels from town to town hoping for some magic to rub off on his audiences that will enable some kind of transcendence. Whether he’s faking it or not isn’t important. It’s the belief that matters.
“Frank is utterly honest,” says Costigan, as he prepares to play the part in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new production of Friel’s play. “It’s an odd thing to say, because everyone in the play has a different version of events, and they’re not liars, but Frank is desperate to tell you his truth about what happens. He’s looking for closure, and you can’t act that.”
Presented in four monologues, two addresses by Frank book-end appearances by his wife Grace and his manager Teddy. Out of this comes a portrait of the artist – be it writer, actor or faith healer – as a shamanic, erratic but never wilfully fraudulent force. Not that Costigan is questioning the potential power of Frank in any way.
“Like ninety per cent of the population,” he says, “I don’t know anything about faith healing, but as an actor I get to get an education I never had. Like Hamlet, I believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, so I didn’t doubt what I found when I was researching the play. In some ways it’s just like being an actor. Some nights you’re there, and others you have to keep pushing it up a hill.”
Costigan has witnessed first-hand the hard to define drive in people like Frank.
“In my mind’s eye, I keep coming back to Pete Postlethwaite,” Costigan says of the late actor who, like him, came through Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in the 1970s. “He wasn’t a faith healer, but he was mysteriously wise. He kept seeing things, and there was a fire about him.”
Costigan had been asked by PFT’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman to play Frank once before, when she was at Bolton Octagon Theatre, but for one reason and another it didn’t work out.
“She’s a force,” Costigan says of Newman, who has just finished her first summer season in Pitlochry. “I think they know that here. She’s in a very privileged position, because audiences here might expect certain things, and she can flex her muscles with that.”
Costigan has made increasingly frequent appearances on stages in Scotland over the last few years. At the Citizens Theatre, he first appeared in Dominic Hill’s production of King Lear, returning for Hill’s productions of Crime and Punishment, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Zinnie Harris’ reimagining of Greek tragedy in Oresteia; This Restless House. Most recently he appeared with the Citz company in Harris’ new version of The Duchess (of Malfi).
“I’m thrilled to bits,” Costigan says of his ongoing association with Scotland’s theatre scene. “My home is in France, so wherever I go is away from home, and the quality of the work I’m being invited to do here is second to none. And the writing in this play is so glorious, that how could I say no?”
One of Newman’s initiatives sees PFT take Faith Healer out on a tour of the Highlands following its home run.
“It’s an echo of what Faith Healer is about,” Costigan says. “We’re going on the road, with no lighting rigs, and three people turning up at a village hall hoping something will happen. That will be an exciting gig. It feels like I’m finally going to get to do my job. In a theatre, you’ve got this whole pile of machinery designed to seduce you, but this is proper stripped down theatre. It’s just me and the audience. I mean, come on...”
Faith Healer runs at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, October 17-November 3, then tours to Carnegie Hall, Clashmore, Dornoch, November 5; Orkney Theatre Arts, Kirkwall Grammar School, November 6; Macphail Centre, Ullapool, November 8; Strathearn Artspace, Crieff, November 9; Aros Centre, Skye, November 11; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, November 14-16.
The Herald, October 12th 2019