Does faith healing come about thanks to the faith of the healer, or the faith of the healed, or through faith in faith itself? This question haunts “the fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only”, as his publicity poster presents him; it troubles his wife, Grace, and perplexes Teddy, his manager. Brian Friel’s 1979 play places the audience, too, in a state of doubt. Over the course of four separate soliloquies, these three characters build conflicting impressions of their relationships and their village hall tours of Wales and Scotland. Their slippery accounts do not tally. Only a few features hold firm: place names, a couple of events – and the act of questioning. Are the characters misremembering or deliberately misleading? Who and what should – can – we believe, or believe in?
In our own destabilising times, the Old Vic’s “scratch” production is itself an expression of faith – part of a season of performances played on stage before an empty auditorium and simultaneously livestreamed to an audience that must pay to Zoom in. Given how much recorded work is being put online free, will people find sufficient added value in being connected with performers in time although not in space? Will they stump up for tickets?
Well, artistic director Matthew Warchus undoubtedly delivers value for money. Lighting and camera-framing artfully enhance excellent performances. Our viewpoint is upstage of the characters, looking beyond them towards shadow-shrouded, vacant stalls. Michael Sheen’s Frank, puff-chested in preacher-dark suit and hat, grippingly shuffles the moods of this restless, prophet-like, con-artist, man-of-sorrow enigma. By contrast, Indira Varma’s angular, fidgety-fingered Grace is hopelessly marooned, accompanying her recollections with unconsoling cigarettes and whisky. David Threlfall as Teddy magnificently modulates humorous theatre anecdotes (bagpipe-playing dog; bird whisperer) with raw emotion (remembering the death of Grace’s baby) and brings out the common denominator of all three accounts: uncomprehending love.
If the rest of Warchus’s In Camera season matches this, I believe the company’s faith will be justified, people will be happy to pay to view, and there is hope that the unsubsidised Old Vic might survive this Covid desolation.