A man in a three-piece suit makes his way through the empty auditorium onto the Old Vic’s stage. He recites a stream of strange words that conjure myths, hacking up consonants. Is it a magic spell? A curse? No. It is a list of what he calls the ‘dying Welsh villages’, ones that he has visited on tour in the guise of ‘The Fantastic Francis Hardy: Faith Healer’. Sometimes Frank’s hands attend miracles and he cures the desperate people who seek him out – a twisted finger straightened; a limping man walking as he used to. Mostly, they do not. He always knows when nothing is going to happen, Frank says.
Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, comprised of four, linked monologues that piece together Frank’s traumatic final show, is a play about performance. ‘The Fantastic Francis Hardy: Faith Healer’ represents a dying breed of popular performers, a walking anachronism even in 1979 when the play was written. His manager Teddy’s former clients are a whippet who played the bagpipes and a woman with a flock of show pigeons. Frank and his ‘mistress’ Grace (he will never dignify her with the title of wife, despite how long they have been together) recount turning up to perform at sparsely attended church halls and barns, running out of money, drinking heavily and sleeping in the van. The wooden chairs that set the stage for Frank’s first monologue are echoed by the empty seats in the Old Vic auditorium, poignantly underscoring the existential threat that theatres currently face.
Frank is a raconteur, spinning out his story and creating characters with the godlike power of narrator. Grace and Teddy’s monologues reveal the cruelty beneath Frank’s charm, his arrogance, his fallibility, his lack of faith in himself. Grace remembers that he would change her surname every time he introduced her in order to humiliate her, as part of ‘the compulsion he had to adjust, to refashion, to re-create everything around him’. Part of the skill of Friel’s writing is his ability to tease out these contradictions between the monologues. In his first monologue, Frank edits out inconvenient memory entirely, substituting it with his mother’s death. Is this a way to deal with trauma, or is it another casual cruelty? Equally startling are the times when Frank, Grace and Teddy unexpectedly converge on a version of events, recounting it in the same words. Friel’s structure is masterful. Events accumulate momentum by repetition until they become inevitable, as if speaking them aloud summons them into being.
In the role of Frank, Michael Sheen captures the bonhomie and charm of a born performer, who only seems to exist when he’s in front of an audience. In his second monologue, which concludes the play, Sheen reveals the pain and deep insecurity underneath Frank’s acts of self-dramatisation and the terrible consequences of Frank’s loss of faith in himself and his abilities.
Indira Varma as Grace is quieter. Sitting in a chair in a tweed skirt and cardigan, she looks washed out, as if Frank’s vampiric presence has drained her of life. She recites her daily routine, and it’s banal in comparison to the glamour, however faded, of life on the road. She insists that she is recovering. But there’s a desperate sadness to the matter of fact way in which she recounts the terrible thing that happened at Kinlochbervie, staring straight ahead.
The emotional intensity drops in David Threlfall’s monologue as Teddy, as he recounts his career in showbiz while steadily drinking his way through bottles of beer on the table beside him. Threlfall’s performance is the hardest to follow over Zoom and at times he is inaudible, not helped by the glitching half-second pauses that pepper the livestream.
While in many ways Faith Healer is an inspired choice for livestreamed performance, the play itself also reveals the limitations of this medium. Frank’s performances depend so much upon stage presence, that mystical charge that takes place between performer and audience member in a shared space, that you can’t help feeling like you’re missing out by not being in that auditorium. There’s also something unnerving about the choice to use extreme close-ups at particularly dramatic moments, the camera lurching to Sheen’s face, revealing white hairs threading his beard, spittle on his lips. Although it does help to demystify Frank, like Grace and Teddy’s monologues, it also foregrounds the differences between stage and camera acting. A closeup of a face contorted in pain on screen seems more hammy than affecting. I found myself longing for the distance that an auditorium would provide.
Nonetheless, Faith Healer suggests that watching theatre is an act of faith. The Old Vic: In Camera production invites us to keep faith that we will again sit in those rooms, in those plush red seats and bear witness to other people’s stories.
Faith Healer was livestreamed by the Old Vic for five performances until 19th September. More info here.