The Old Vic: In Camera

Ah, the joy of live performance! Well, not exactly live, perhaps, but through a single camera focus the Old Vic’s In Camera series is effectively bringing culture-starved audiences as close to that much-missed experience as is humanly possible.  

As the Zoom technology ticks towards zero, one has a distinct sense of being part of a large and expectant virtual audience. Normal conventions are observed: the front-of-house announcements, the bell ringing for five, three and one minute, the murmur of the assembled crowd, dying abruptly in that magical moment when the silent spell descends.

The theatre’s latest offering is Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s monumental quartet of monologues swirling around the dubious career of Francis Hardy, a charismatic peripatetic healer and the two hapless individuals who share his life.

Who could forget Donal McCann’s fulminating incarnation of a character of which, in the Abbey’s 1980 production (and subsequent 1990 revival), he took total ownership.  McCann once admitted that acting was something he could do but that it frightened him because he was very good at it. He thought that Faith Healer would put ‘the tin hat’ on him because, standing on stage delivering Friel’s lines night after night, it became part of him.  He came to feel and understand profoundly what the play meant. Indeed, Friel himself declared that hearing the play through McCann’s voice had clarified certain sections of it for him.

Even in these stripped-back, unnatural conditions, Michael Sheen’s will endure as one of the finest performances of this challenging, disturbing role. It demands to come into a full production when normality returns. 

With his long, curly hair slicked back, his greying beard bristling, an exaggerated swagger and a knowing twinkle in his eye, Sheen fully lives up to The Fantastic Francis Hardy billing on his grubby publicity poster. He is a conman, a dissembler, who, of his own admission, does what he does simply because he can. 

The ‘fantastic’ superlative is the invention of his devoted manager Teddy (David Threlfall), an old school show-biz promoter who lives for and through his stable of bizarre, small-time performers, whether Rob Roy the piping whippet or the pitiful Miss Mulatto and her pigeons. In Francis Hardy he is in no doubt that he has struck gold.

Friel is the master of creating recurring dramatic motifs, which endow each play with a distinctive identity: the split personality of Gar O’Donnell in Philadelphia, Here I Come!,  the dance metaphor of Dancing at Lughnasa, the bilingual dialogue of Translations.  Here it is the repeated recitation of the small, dying towns of Wales and Scotland, where Hardy has shamelessly plied his dangerous trade. 

Sheen unleashes on them the full welly of his native Welsh musicality, rolling through every vowel and consonant: Llanblethian, Llanfyllin, Cwmllynfell, Aberaeron, Aberdaron. He is sure-footed, eloquent and boastful, revelling in the lives he has invaded before stumbling slightly over the mention of the Scottish town of Kinlochbervie, scene of a terrible personal tragedy. 

Indira Varma’s quiet, beautifully understated intervention as his wife Grace begins to fill in the gaps in Hardy’s mendacious biographical jigsaw.  The daughter of an Irish judge, who uses words like ‘mountebank’ and ‘chicanery’ when speaking of his son-in-law, Varma’s Grace is damaged and fragile, voluntarily in thrall to a man who has mistreated and exploited her and yet who has given her some of the happiest times of her life.

In contrast with Varma’s stillness, the cogs are turning at full throttle in Threlfall’s actorly Teddy, reliant on a bottle of booze to help him relive the memories and emotions, which will forever haunt him. He is at his most engaging, when he quaveringly reveals the truth of Grace’s fate, the tender feelings he has harboured for her, the magnificence of Frank’s Llanblethian performance and the drunken night with the wedding guests in Ballybeg (Friel’s fictional Donegal home place), when the faith healer succumbs to his own myth.

Rarely has the play resounded with such power as in the final monologue, when the jigsaw is completed. The precision timing and uncompromising truthfulness of Sheen’s interpretation take the dénouement into terrifying, unearthly territory.  As the threatening character of the crippled McGarvey lurks in the darkness, he knows what is to come yet is powerless to evade it.  He yearns to confront it.  He welcomes it.  He leaves us with a triumphant declaration, “I was renouncing chance”.

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