Faith Healer by Brian Friel – streamed from the Old Vic
Matthew Warchus’ streamed production of Faith Healer comes at us like emanations from a ghost world. Brian Friel’s themes – the supernatural inextricably tangled with brutal reality – are eerily appropriate for the cavernous Old Vic auditorium where actors deliver exceptional, crafted performances to an empty theatre. In search of an audience, the three cast members turn their backs to the theatre’s usually creaking seats and deliver their monologues into the backstage void (a space large enough for the Royal Court to have installed a makeshift auditorium in the late 1990s when its refurbishment over-ran). Faith Healer was first streamed in the autumn, when theatres had tentatively reopened. Viewed during Lockdown 3, the heightened uncertainty about live performance lends the production an extra layer of otherwordliness as we watch a dormant profession playing out the past as though haunting the stage they once inhabited.
Faith Healer is a perfect choice for socially distanced performance. Three characters deliver four monologues. Each changes our perception of the same events, Rashomon-style, as they each give their account. Michael Sheen’s titular healer, Francis Hardy, personifies both charm and overwhelming self-doubt. He looks us in the eyes as he unpacks his mountebank life as a travelling healer, mostly a charlatan but with occasional glimpses of something special. He is an alcoholic who treats his wife, Grace, and long-suffering manager Teddy as badly as he pleases, but despite this he claims our attention because he is aware, or so it appears to us, of his own failings.
Subsequent monologues, from Indira Varma as Grace and David Threlfall as Teddy, throw a different light on Sheen’s story. Varma is broken by years of hard physical and emotional labour, touring the forgotten edges of Wales and Scotland, and her testimony is devastating as it reveals exactly what Frank left out. Her performance as a woman hanging onto the last vestiges of self delusion is heart-breakingly real. Threlfall plays a different type of character altogether, but he engaged in self delusion to an equal extent. Teddy is a threadbare entertainer, with worn-out stories of the shabby acts he managed in his supposed heyday. His tone grates at first and it takes use time to understand who he really is but Friel delivers unexpected emotional weight as Teddy is forced to drop his performance (“Dear hearts, dear hearts!”) and tell us what he really feels.
Faith Healer is a play of exceptional quality, one of three Friel wrote in the late 1970s alongside Aristocrats and Translations that cemented his reputation. Its geography is notably dark and captivating, from the litanies of Celtic place names to an emotional catastrophe that takes place at the geographical limits and, finally, a doomed, symbolic return to Ireland. Few are so successful at translating the specificity of social history into the most widely applicable of human themes, and with such apparent ease. Warchus does the play proud in very odd circumstances, making the lack of stage setting a strength as the theatre itself provides the best possible staging. It is an experience that helps to carry us through the dark times, a production born of out pandemic constraints that speaks to us right now.