15…10…5…3…1… And so it went. From the warning bells ushering us to our seats (or our comfy couch), Old Vic’s In Camera series is, by far, one of the most theatrical of showings that is available online during these complicated days of isolation and shut down. The theatre company and all those working on these presentations continually find just the right angle to draw us in, making us feel the ignitable snap and crackle of live theatre, even as we stream this live in the moment performance into our living rooms. It’s exciting just knowing deep down inside that across the pond in that iconic building, this play, the dark twisted turnings of Faith Healer, written with a sharp edged rhythm by the illustrious Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa), is coming to life at that very moment, and that this piece of theatre is live and breathing life into our souls before our very eyes.
The structure of the play is tailor-made for social distanced performing. Four monologues, one after the other, by three players and protagonists, ratcheting up the tension and filling out a sordid story of a past power possessed by the sick and dead soul before. Its entanglements conjure a tragedy played out slowly before us, revolving around the Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, and his crew of two devotees; the orderly romantic Teddy, devoted servant, and his wife mistress, Gracie, a Yorkshire woman who wants and desires a devotion flooded with the hopeless hope of a dreamer. The three appear, in a deadly precise order, chanting Welsh and Scottish names of the incantation for sanity’s sake with a Biblical proportion and clarity, much like this play. It’s a towering insight into the tortures of humanity, with all irony suspended, and a fiery joy to behold, in any time zone.
Michael Sheen, the dynamic towering talent from “Frost/Nixon“, weaves his way majestically into view, speaking strongly with a tense dynamic showmanship quality that registers. He is the man at the center of this engaging, humorous posturing, throwing forward the illusion (or delusion) of spirited belief and rehabilitation. This is Francis Hardy, a mediocre faith healing artist at his best, possessing a power that even he doesn’t quite understand himself. “I did it, cause I could do it, and occasionally it did work.” Sheen shimmers with illusive magnetism, giving us not simply a liar, albeit a very very good one, but a man that embodies the whole of himself in perfect performative dynamics, with “all irony suspended“. He’s a “savage bloody man” feeding us his twisted talent, evenly and forcibly, making us tune in and pay complete and total attention, even as he registers the hurting that he wields outward. There is tragedy coming towards him, a dark weight descending, but Friel doesn’t give in to our desires too quickly. We must wait, and stay tuned in, or we might miss the flame and fire that comes with a healing night of exaltation and destruction.
Directed with a sharp eye for intention by the talented Matthew Warchus (Old Vic In Camera’s Three Kings), the tightness of the intimate talk sinks in deeper and deeper with each deliberate monologue as the story floats its way around the most remote corners of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Hardy is attempting to heal those who come wishing to be healed, while his wife Grace, played with such edgy dimension and purpose by Indira Varma (NT’s Man and Superman), suffers the sharpness of his twisted talent. Her sly smile and nervous frailty tearing into her very skin, embodies the squaller and neediness that lives and breathes inside her, buried on the side of the road. Her wounds sting forth, even as she states all that she is thankful for, and even though “of course, you’ve had a traumatic experience”she, over and done with, is stalled inside her own bloody pained recovery. It’s a compellingly smart performance, one that dodges the overly dramatic, while finding the conflicting pain and engagement within that quiet seat on that empty stage.
Hardy’s manager, Teddy, played dynamically by the amazing David Threlfall (Young Vic’s Skellig) fills out the inconsistencies embedded within his own delicately slurred delivery, finding a force within every gulp that delivers, as he systematically bats away tears, heart break, and wonder. He finds an energy that gets livelier and livelier as the story digs in, but “however he said it, it sounded like the whole world” crashing down and falling apart before our very eyes. He sheds his own nomadic loving light on the telling of this tale, finding a purposefully intact mannerism that breathes such energy and light into the way he says “fantastic.” It’s a masterful portrayal of loss and the struggle of life on the road, but it doesn’t end with him. He teases us, in a way, with his modest haphazard memories, guiding us down a path that is as if to say, I’m going to show you how it all ends, but then he doesn’t. He leads us up and around the back of the lounge, finding a shifty way to return us into the hands of the utterly great Sheen as the modestly fantastic Faith Healer, as he stumbles knowingly into the frey. The snippets entangle us, maddeningly coaxing our curious senses about that electric and tense last night in Ireland, his homecoming, as the web of the fourth and final act are played out. This is epic storytelling by all on board, leading us helplessly into the irreconcilable violent light at the end of a dark glaring tunnel.
One couldn’t hope for more from the captivating four-cornered tryptic tale. This struggling complicated man renouncing all chance of healing himself or those around him captivates. It’s a winding treacherous road that we are led down, solidly designed by Rob Howell, with lighting by Tim Lutkin & Sarah Baker, with Simon Baker doing magic with the video and sound broadcast, one that we won’t forget. The Old Vic has delivered us a soul-enriching healing, much like what Francis Hardy promises to his enraptured audience, but this time, as with the two other In Camera productions before it, Lungs and Three Kings, the live theatre magic works miracles for all that is watching.
Director Matthew Warchus
Design Rob Howell
Lighting Tim Lutkin & Sarah Brown
Broadcast Sound & Video Simon Baker
Casting Jessica Ronane CDG
Dialect Penny Dyer
Associate Director Katy Rudd
Company Stage Manager Robbie Cullen
Deputy Stage Manager Maria Gibbons
Head of Lighting Andrew Stuttard
Camera Operator Josh Reeves
Stage technician/Camera Assistant Aran Morrison
Sound & Video Operator James Percival
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