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‘A haunting & spellbinding play’: FAITH HEALER – Old Vic (Online review)

The third of the Old Vic’s ‘In Camera’ live streamed performances is Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer, often described as his masterpiece. In a manner which is now beginning to seem customary, the performance takes place on the stage of the theatre but there is no audience in attendance; rather, we are all at home sitting in front of our own screens. The Old Vic has done its best to replicate the live experience by allowing early entry to the auditorium where there is a constant buzz of audience noise and the Stage Manager also obligingly gives calls so we can get to our seats on time. One definite positive of all this is that latecomers are absolutely no bother.

Faith Healer is a perfect choice when it comes to socially distanced performing as it consists of four linked monologues. And when those monologues are performed by Michael Sheen, David Threlfall and Indira Varma it’s a pretty good bet that you’re going to be engaged by some masterclass acting – and so it proves.

Sheen appears first as the Faith Healer himself, one Francis Hardy (the conjunction of initials is seen as fortuitous) who tells the tale of his travels, appearing in makeshift venues “for one night only” to use his gift for healing the sick. Sheen’s rich voice and leonine appearance (even more fully developed than when he was in one of the TV hits of lockdown, Staged) are a joy to watch. He certainly exudes the absolute charisma which would be necessary for Francis to convince folk that his powers are genuine – and they may well be as we are left to form our own conclusions. He has more than a touch of the blarney about him but in the initial absence of any other testimony we tend to believe what he says or at least believe that he believes it.

He particularly homes in on three specific visits – one in Wales, one in Scotland and one in his native country of Ireland and fills us in on the details of what happens. With a twinkle in his eye and an evident rich enjoyment of life it initially matters little whether we are getting at the truth or not.

Then Grace, his partner, takes over and retells the narrative concentrating on the same three occasions – except what she tells us is quite different. Francis has told us that Grace is from Yorkshire (Scarborough or Knaresborough, he can’t remember which, but they are pretty much the same) except she is clearly Irish too. I must admit that it took a little while for it to sink in that it wasn’t Indira Varma’s accent that was poor but that it was Francis’ reliability as a narrator that was in question.

Essentially Sheen had suckered me in to believing his/Francis’ version of events and, of course, it is the realisation that this has happened that in hindsight makes us want to question all of Francis’s testimony. Meanwhile Varma is giving a deeply anguished performance of a woman on the edge who reveals her partner’s casual cruelty in walking off while she was giving birth to their child in a field and also hints at her ultimate fate. In contrast to Sheen, Varma’s is a very still and contained performance though none the less powerful for that.

There is a complete change of tone in the third monologue with the introduction of Francis’s manager Teddy, a cockney minor impresario of the old school with acts involving flocks of pigeons and a bagpipe playing whippet. He too reveals other aspects of the trio’s story which both Grace and Francis have kept hidden either through deliberate choice or through the subconscious operation of selective memory. And as Teddy obviously harbours a secret passion for Grace just how much of what he says can be trusted? David Threlfall’s skill at characterisation is firmly on display here and his usual attention to detail provides a richly rewarding and comic performance which at first seems at odds with the other two but gradually coalesces and complements that of the others.

Sheen rounds out the evening by returning for a final shorter monologue in which the events of the fateful and possibly fatal evening in Ballybeg are revealed as he disappears into a suggestive tunnel of light. A neat ending, although, as the Old Vic website unaccountably does not list the director, I can’t attribute the idea (I assume as with the previous two “In Cameras” it is Matthew Warchus). The other compliment I wished to pay in that area is for the clever use of extreme close ups until only the eyes of the actors are showing. Both unsettling and revelatory at the same time it is certainly not something that could be achieved in a traditionally staged production. Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown’s lighting and Rob Howell’s minimal set designs and costumes all contribute significantly to place and atmosphere. I was left puzzled as to why Indira Varma was left clutching an unlit cigarette throughout and am in awe of David Threlfall’s bladder capacity!

Ultimately, we are still not sure that we have heard the truth from anyone as details shift and contradict each other in the various versions. Is Grace a wife as both she and Teddy insist or a mistress which is Francis’ claim? Who really had the idea to preface Francis’s “act” with Fred Astaire? Exactly what happened in the field in Scotland “about as far north as you can go” (at least they agree on that detail)? And does any of that matter? To each, the subjective truth they espouse is the truth they have lived through – essentially, they have their own faith in their own reality. The play asks the question should we put our faith in those who say they can do things or those who prove that they can – and if there’s not a political point being made there I’ll eat Francis’ hat. Despite the claim on his poster that the performance is “for one night only” there are actually four more chances to catch this haunting and spellbinding play.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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