‘It can never be the same’, a complaint we hear regularly about the proliferation of online streaming while theatres remain closed or unable to operate at usual capacity, and in many ways it is true. The immediacy and intimacy are lacking on a screen, the buzz of the room as it ripples with the effect of the storytelling and staging decisions, the communal experience as a whole auditorium of strangers holds its breath in anticipation as the comedy, romance and tragedy of human experience plays out in front of you. Streaming, though a worthy and hugely valuable alternative in the last few months, just cannot replicate that feeling of being there. And then the Old Vic’s production of Faith Healer came along and changed everything.
Brian Friel’s incredible play ran for just five performances via the In Camera series and yet overcame all those distancing boundaries to become one of the most vital and affecting experiences of the year. Reconfigured as an online experience, the successive monologue format combined with three outstanding performances and a technical construction that used several innovative film techniques to enhance every aspect of the story. It was an experience so affecting, so painfully intimate and so beautifully played it felt as though Friel had written Faith Healer especially for this format.
A Memory Play
Faith Healer is one of the most sophisticated examples of a memory play in which each character reflects on their years together and the key incidents that define their lives. Unlike A Glass Menagerie to which the term is most commonly attributed and uses a single narrative perspective that couches events in the memory or fantasy of the protagonist, Friel’s play allows each creation to speak for themselves in lengthy and uninterrupted flows of thought. The writer uses these perspectives to note that among three people who knew each other well, how differently they view the pivotal moments in their lives which are dramatically enhanced or reconfigured by the alternative viewpoints.
What makes Faith Healer such an interesting memory play is the complicated ways in which Friel uses impossible timelines in the retelling of their story. Frank, Grace and Teddy all refer to each other in the past tense, as though remembering events of which they are the sole survivor – an approach that cannot be born out as the true story reveals itself. So just what is the status of these reminiscences, are all of the characters alive, ghosts or other kinds of consciousness? It’s a throwaway concept but one that Friel has chosen deliberately to create drama in his play as the ‘truth’ becomes more ambiguous. That this only enhances rather than undermines his narrative structure is testament to the quality of his writing and the spell it casts on the viewer.
Collectively, these tales form a semi-complete picture in which Friel, like a historian or policeman trying to understand the evidence, encourages the audience to piece together these fragments of experience to find the truth of what occurred between the Faith Healer, his wife and his agent. But this is not a mystery to be solved so much as an exercise in the complexities of human relationships, the emotional damage people casually inflict on one another over many years while still clinging to the stability and sustenance the group offers.
Several recurring themes beat under the surface of this work and, like Translations, Friel is exercised by ideas of Irish identity, of retaining a sense of cultural self in diaspora and the specificity of place in grounding emotionally or physically transitory characters, providing anchorage as personality becomes fluid. This is particularly felt in the repeated reference to ‘homecoming’ in the first two monologues as Frank and Grace, long absent from Ireland, describe returning both to their original family houses and later to the nation itself, where being among their countrymen proves liberating and fateful.
That these encounters are suffused with death is pertinent and both Hardys recount impromptu returns that foreshadow loss and result in contact with disapproving father figures who shape the outlook of both Frank and Grace in slightly different ways. That the couple contest the other’s version of events only adds to the complexity of unbreakable yet burdensome family ties which is often at the root of Friel’s characterisation, examining how domineering male figures create rebellion and dissatisfaction in their children.
Matthew Warchus’s approach seems entirely fitting for a play about memory and displacement and in envisaging this production for the screen overcomes the limitations of the streaming platform by using a number of surprising filming techniques. The cast are all experienced screen actors and have an innate understanding of where the camera is and what it is doing at any given moment. This is woven through their performances without restricting their freedom to move around or change tempo as the story demands. Frank, for example, is the only character to stand throughout so Warchus – as with Three Kings – frames Sheen against the empty Old Vic auditorium which only enhances the idea that Frank has always played to empty rooms as what little audience he had dies away.
What is fascinating, though, is how confident the camerawork is and how meaningfully it captures the style of the play. There are no Zoom boxes here nor multiple angles to cut between, just a single camera trained on the protagonists as their confessional plays out. At moments of dramatic crescendo or poignancy the camera slowly focuses-in on the actor, edging nearer as the audience is drawn into their perspective, until the frame is filled by just their face, an intimacy with the production that no theatre experience can offer. Warchus even more daringly takes us closer still, until just the performer’s eyes are visible, a chance to see in painfully close detail where lies, self-deception, suffering and disappointment reside, drawing out the undercurrents of Friel’s play where what characters tell us and what they really feel are not always aligned.
There is a simplicity to this approach that yields remarkable value for the Old Vic, each character is given equal treatment, no one monologue suggested as more true than the others. To enhance the unfolding drama Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown have designed a lighting arrangement that suits the filmic approach, casting different degrees of shadow around the speakers to ground or untether them as the story demands. Grace particularly seems to float in a sea of black behind her, while the comic lightness of Teddy’s version of events is far brighter, picking out the moments of affliction with darkness. But Lutkin and Brown do their best work in the final moments, casting concentrated, almost noirish shadows across Frank’s face as Warchus’s close-up creates a sense first of mania as Frank’s disordered mind explodes before a semi-reverent calm descends on the visuals as the story concludes. How this deep understanding of the play’s rhythms are reflected and enhanced by the filming choices is astounding, the medium adding something new and revealing to an already celebrated piece of writing.
Our first image of Francis Hardy is as actor Michael Sheen walks along a trajectory filled with chairs as though situated in the now empty hall after one of his performance to begin his first 35-minute monologue, setting the scene for everything that is to come. The light dramatically behind Sheen, Frank is already a man fighting with time, overwhelmed by memories of the not-quite glory days while reconciling the disappointments of a dwindling career as he questions what the years of showmanship have really given him.
Frank is not a Faith Healer in the American sense, there’s no evangelical optimism or grandiosity about his personality, instead he cuts a rather tragic figure right from the start, worn and reduced by his time on the road. A consummate performer though, his mediocre gift, which he freely admits only works some of the time, gives him little comfort, and Frank wearily describes the achievements he barely believes in himself. He balks at the word charlatan in a newspaper-cutting but never entirely contests the description, complains of the troublesome nature of the mistress who accompanies him and does an amusing impression of his refined cockney manager Teddy both of whom we are yet to meet. And while his profession should be about the hope and restoration that Frank gives to his audiences, instead we feel his loss, as though something has been taken from him rather than freely given.
Sheen uses far more movement on the stage than the other actors, pacing and turning from the harsh glare of the camera as the character fudges and hides from the truth of his life. At times, particularly in the second part of his monologue as Faith Healer concludes, Sheen has the confidence to turn his back to us addressing the empty darkness of the Old Vic auditorium, the actor perhaps taking the opportunity to perform to the house, but also reflecting Frank’s agitation in that moment. Few actors dare to do this on stage but it becomes part of the naturalism and variety within Sheen’s approach.
He knows exactly where the camera is and how to play to it, showing us more pointedly that Frank is hiding even from himself and having to recite the Celtic names of the towns he has passed as a coping mechanism, a calming methodology to keep him on track. With a soft Irish accent that reverberate’s Friel’s words so beautifully, Sheen’s performance is extraordinary, understanding all of the complexities of Frank’s character that make him a warm and often likeable storyteller, vividly recreating the scenes of his life, but a man at odds with everything he is, capable of great selfishness that hurts others while still reeling from the difficult relationships with his family and travelling companions. As the memories overwhelm and disturb him to such effect, you think it can’t get better than this.
And then Grace’s story is every bit as powerful, delivered in a heartbreaking monologue by Indira Varma who uses stillness to convey her character’s brittle subsistence. But it is the incongruities you will first notice, pulling apart the notions that Frank has implanted in our heads and realigning the audience’s understanding of the nature of their relationship and its chronology. Varma delivers these contradictions with a world-weary resignation, although a hint of frustration creeps in as Grace not only deflates the ego of the man she spent her life with but, for the first time, stakes her own claim to their life together.
It quickly becomes tragic as, hardly moving, Grace recounts the early days of their married life and her own complicated relationship with her father that seems to shape her experience as she buffers between the three men that feature in her story. Grace has the darkest experience in many ways and Varma is subtle in drawing out the small hurts and daily contempts that erode the character over time and as she sits unassumingly in her chair fiddling with a cigarette she never lights, her downcast eyes speak volumes about the life she has chosen and subsequently endured.
As she borrows Frank’s technique of naming the places they’ve travelled through, they become a form of lament, as though each place mired her further, inescapably and inevitably building to Grace’s moment of tragedy in a small Scottish town, the name of which powerfully links the monologues together. This part of the speech is devastatingly played by Varma, descriptive yet the effect on her suddenly ashen countenance is distressing to watch and the audience sees how entirely Grace is trapped in that place and time, an event from which she never recovers. With Sheen and Varma on such extraordinary form, you think it can’t get better than this.
And then David Threlfall casts all expectation aside with a performance of comic acuity that upends your expectations of where this play is going. Again, it is Friel’s control of the facts that you will notice and, having dismissed Frank’s monologue as semi-fabricated in the light of Grace’s testimony, far more of the Faith Healer’s story is shown to be true. Employing a refined cockney accent and absorbing the mannerism and speech patterns of a man long-part of the showbiz world, Threlfall pitches his interpretation of Teddy perfectly to contrast with the intensity of what has gone before, seen from the perspective of the outsider to the marriage.
There is a shabby gentility to Teddy who addresses the audience with a conversational ease as he describes the acts he has managed in the past, though none of them remotely glamorous or above the level of variety performers. In fact, in Warchus’s otherwise timeless setting, there are nods to The Entertainer in Threlfall’s approach, a lifetime in the theatre but an end of the pier grubbiness that never escapes the shabby rooms that Frank resents. A characterisation that Threlfall holds onto superbly throughout his piece.
Threlfall is able to switch the mood from comic to tragic in seconds, a technique he employs in Faith Healer to considerable effect. This Teddy, revealingly, drinks ale incessantly throughout and is clearly troubled by the events he has been part of, things he seems to have run away from until the play takes him back to the village in Scotland and later to the police station in Paddington where the two key events of his interaction with the Hardys takes place. Watching Threlfall remove Teddy’s surface layer and travel back into these painful remembrances is very touching.
Collectively these three storytellers are particularly adept at recreating the events in an almost visual conjuring of memory with Sheen, Varma and Threfall becoming their characters so entirely that when they describe an earlier scenario, Frank, Grace and Teddy lose themselves in the the physical existence of the place they describe, physically gesturing to the ghost of a companion sitting across from them or referencing activity in another part of the room with such conviction that the audience too is absorbed by it.
With an appreciation for the vivacity of Friel’s language and its value in building character, place and emotional heft this production of Faith Healer was an affecting experience and we can only hope that someone pressed record on the Zoom feed to retain it for posterity. Reworked for live relay, these wonderful actors delivered a hybrid stage and screen performance that took your breath away and across 2 hours and 20 minutes gave the audience an intimate experience that being in the room wouldn’t have delivered so equitably. Streaming ‘is not the same’ of course, sometimes it is even better.