Michael Sheen during rehearsals of Faith Healer.Twitter/@msheensource

Brian Friel’s characters tell one another stories in order to live. In Translations and Aristocrats, the plays that bookend an unofficial trilogy he wrote at the end of the 1970s, the characters bicker and banter in the face of unthinkable circumstances, telling — then unravelling — the myths that make a nation. Here, a silly joke about Wordsworth; there, an elderly patriarch facing the truth. The plays’ humour and drama take place in their melodic exchanges, not in any action; each character is given meaning by their conversations, by what they say to others — and what they don’t.

The middle play in Friel’s trilogy of stories about stories is different. Faith Healer, broadcast on Zoom from an empty Old Vic, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. Instead, we get four long soliloquies, delivered on a sparse stage by a succession of characters. First comes Francis Healy, faith healer — half-genius, half-quack — then his wife Grace, and their manager Teddy. The three of them were itinerant performers, or so they say, wandering round the fringes of the fringes of Scotland and Wales with a promise that they could fix unfixable ailments.

“Academics love Faith Healer — but flagship theatres that need bums on seats? In normal times, not so much.”

Academics love Faith Healer — but flagship theatres that need bums on seats? In normal times, not so much. A lone actor on stage can be difficult to sell, especially when the more commercial pleasures of Translations are as easily available. These days, though, that lone actor is very socially distanced. You can imagine the Old Vic team looking for COVID-compliant texts on the Zoom-background shelves, rummaging past Talking Heads, briefly considering an even-more-distant Pinter, before settling upon the old, dependable bard of Donegal’s oddest play.

The production they came up with has hints of lockdown in it, not least in its actors’ hair: Michael Sheen’s Francis looks somewhat like Hagrid; David Threlfall is sporting a very fetching ponytail. But even through a lens, you’re struck by the emotional power of their performances. Sheen gives his Francis a remarkable intensity — he whispers, sweats, roams the stage and seems like he’s about to cry, even as he tells inane tales about singing Ilkley Moor in pubs. On good nights, Francis tells us, he worked miracles in the run-down church halls where he performed his art, straightening crooked fingers, bringing back sight with a faith gaudier than Christianity. But you sense that this beguiling storyteller might not be telling the whole story.

“Sheen gives his Francis a remarkable intensity.”

Indira Varma’s brittle, broken Grace, who sits for her entire monologue, reveals that he isn’t. Her account of the years that you thought Francis had recounted is very different. On bad nights, he took comfort in a different reality, imagining himself into a happier place where Kinlochbervie wasn’t the town where they buried a nameless baby by the side of a nameless road, but the town he had to leave to return to Ireland to see his father; the same father who Grace says is dead. None of the stories line up. Grace says ‘I’m sure that cross is gone by now, because it was a fragile thing’; later, Threlfall’s ever-so-slightly camp Teddy says ‘Maybe it’s still there’. Everything is told after-the-fact, but there are no facts, no definitional truths. Is Francis an artist, or is he a novelty, hardly different to the bagpiping dog Teddy managed before him? There is no answer, only myths. Even the newspaper clipping Francis holds onto like a totem has spelt his name wrong. These aren’t just characters telling stories; these characters are stories.

The cast of Faith Healer during socially distanced rehearsals.Twitter/@msheensource

On the page, Faith Healer looks like a novel with its long blocks of text, but it’s a curious mongrel in performance. There isn’t a framing device to these monologues; the characters are speaking to you, and you’d best accept it. In a play obsessed with place, which begins with an incantation of names of dying towns — ‘Aberader, Aberayron, Llangranog, Llangurig, Abergorlech, Abergynolwyn’ — there’s no attempt to define where these narrators of the past are now. So it seems quite fitting that the medium accidentally created by the pandemic — not quite a live broadcast, not quite a film, not quite a play — seems to come from a place beyond. The Old Vic itself is a spectral presence in the show. In Sheen’s first monologue, the camera looks towards the stalls from upstage. Sheen moves towards us up the aisle; we see the empty seats, we glimpse a Fresnel hanging from the balcony. An empty theatre in the midst of a pandemic is almost a place outside time. Here Sheen is, a lone performer among the ‘relicts of old rituals’, just like his character; a lone, untrustworthy voice conjuring up images and luring us in with charisma, just like his character.

“You can’t help but fall into the story-world, even though you know it’s a fiction.”

This show happened this way for very practical reasons: the Old Vic’s artistic director Matthew Warchus decided they couldn’t reopen to audiences in a safe way in September, but they did still have the building, so they could stage Faith Healer, alongside socially-distanced versions of A Christmas Carol and Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, to a Zoom audience. It’s the sort of format we’re very used to now, but it’s accidentally perfect. A face beamed into your living room with a Share Screen button below, talking to a singular ‘you’, not a plural audience, is more immediate, more intimate, than a stage show. Sometimes the camera zooms in so close that the actor’s face becomes an abstraction, and only their voice remains. There’s no need for a framing device, because the format provides just what Friel wrote – an old, bardic, spoken word tale. Even in the midst of a pandemic, a lone voice gathering us all to tell a story reminds us of something very simple: that art creates a different world.


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Watching a play at home has its novelties: no need to queue for the loo, or rush for the train home after the applause. You can eat your popcorn as loudly as you like. But even with a large ginger tomcat breathing in your ear, and the sound of the radio drifting up from downstairs, you fall into that familiar, forgotten state of rapture, the total focus that envelopes you in a story and won’t let you go, and twenty minutes later your leg twitches and you suddenly remember you’re a person, with a body, watching a show. Sheen is quite literally magnetic; you can’t take your eyes off him. You can’t help but fall into the story-world, even though you know it’s a fiction. We’ll practice those ‘old rituals’ again, soon. But for the moment, this new ceremony will do nicely.