Brian Friel stands among the giants of Irish literature and in a new film those closest to him reflect on the legacy of this award-winning playwright.
Born in Omagh, County Tyrone, in 1939, Friel’s life spanned some of the most significant political, social and cultural shifts in recent history.
From Philadelphia Here I Come to Faith Healer and Translations, his plays explore themes around identity, social change and language that took Irish theatre in a completely new direction.
Seven years after his death, this revealing film sees Anne Friel invite viewers into the home she shared with her late husband in County Donegal, offering a glimpse into his writing room and study, where photos with Meryl Streep, the Kennedys and his Tony Award for the Broadway success, Dancing at Lughnasa, decorate the walls.
Anne remembers Brian as ‘a man about town’. From selling everything and uprooting their young family to the United States so school teacher Brian could develop his writer’s craft, to finding the strength to keep going when play after play was rejected, Anne charts the highs and lows of their long life together with humour and deep emotion.
The film also has access to a stream of stars, including Sinéad Cusack, Stephen Rea, Siobhán McSweeney and Liam Neeson, who recall their experiences working with Friel and readily attest to his genius.
When Brian Friel died in October 2015, he left behind 24 published plays, two short story collections and adaptations of work by Ibsen, Chekov and Turgenev.
Through family, friends and former colleagues, as well as via his own letters, personal archive and readings from some of his plays, this film sets out to show how Friel re-defined Irish theatre in the second half of the 20th century.
While the big screen adaptation of Dancing at Lughnasa, starring Meryl Streep, attracted a completely different audience to Friel’s work, he remained a beguiling mix of showman and shy man.
He was notoriously reluctant to give Press interviews and a withdrawal from public life in the mid-1980s meant that many have not understood how influential he was, and remains.
n Brian Friel – Shy Man Showman was made by Walk On Air Films and is a co-production for BBC Northern Ireland and RTÉ.
n The film airs on Tuesday, January 18, at 10.35pm on BBC One Northern Ireland and is part of BBC Northern Ireland’s Arts Season.
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