Last time I watched a live-streamed ‘in camera’ production from the Old Vic – Three Kings, starring Andrew Scott – I gave it a standing ovation in my kitchen. This time round, despite the magnificence of Michael Sheen in one of the late, great Brian Friel’s most mesmerising plays, I was tempted to sink to my knees at the end and pray for theatre’s deliverance. The online occasion – delivered across four evenings – afforded a ringside view of high-definition acting. Yet it also felt like a desolate halfway house.
Ideally, the Old Vic would join the Bridge, some West End playhouses, even now the National too, in reopening soon with social distancing. But as Matthew Warchus, directing here, explained in an introduction, it’s hobbled, as many other venues are, by the costs, the risks. A boon though it was to be able to catch every eloquent facial expression from Sheen (joined by Indira Varma and David Threlfall in Friel’s series of four long monologues), it was a poor substitute for seeing him in the flesh.
In theory, the sepulchral nature of the deserted Old Vic offered a fitting context for Faith Healer’s eerie assembly of lone figures looking back on their lives, as if from beyond the grave. When Sheen’s big-bearded, sleek-haired, smartly dressed Frank Hardy entered – in silhouette – reciting the names of the Welsh and Scottish villages where he once plied his trade (the unreliable display of healing powers - oh the irony of restaging this mid-pandemic), he could have been on home turf – his a world of derelict meeting-houses, of abandoned rituals.
Yet a prime ingredient of the experience is what Friel, who wrote this in 1979, took for granted - the audience. These confessionals are addresses to a presumed gathering, as if we’re allied with those curious, needy souls once drawn to Hardy in wary hope of miracles being worked. The piece insinuates a connection: Hardy’s performance skills and his flock’s corresponding faith on the one hand, the power of actors and credulity of theatregoers on the other. It’s a play about ineffable things, alchemical mysteries. Watching at home on some wizard gadget you may glean the meaning, but don’t feel the magic.
This deficit aside, I’ll still applaud the incredible finesse – not to mention the feat of memorising – of this bare-bones but costumed staging. And one benefit of watching on screen was that students of acting could duly take notes. Especially from Sheen. His forte lies in saviours and showmen, whether incarnating Christ (in his Welsh hometown of Port Talbot) and the messianic Tony Blair, or TV ‘faces’ like David Frost (Frost/Nixon) and Chris Tarrant (in Quiz, a lockdown highpoint). The pattern is striking: confident surfaces – winning smiles, ready twinkles – offset by dark, darting intimations of self-doubt. Yet the particularity brought to each role is phenomenal.
“As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me,” Sheen’s Hardy intoned, warm, lilting, direct, eyes widening theatrically at that word ‘possessed’. In a trice, his hands were outstretched and we pictured the moment of healing in his fixed concentration – then it was thrown away in a gesture of contemptuous dismissal. That kind of minutiae was there every step of the way to the recalled rendez-vous with a sacrificial reckoning in Donegal. Bestowed with marginally less interesting characters, Varma was still touching and indefatigably thoughtful as his loyal, slighted female companion Gracie, while Threlfall held his own in an armchair and vaudevillian bow tie, all squiffy bonhomie as the interminably garrulous, ‘dear heart’-ing cockney Teddy. Glad to have seen it? Of course. Lucky me. How sadly far the road lies ahead, though, to the kind of normal that would reveal Friel’s supernatural yarn in its best light. oldvictheatre.com