Old Vic In Camera: Playback
Part of the joy, the singularity, of theatre is its liveness and its sense of presence. In a theatre auditorium, nothing competes for your attention, everything about the space is designed to focus your attention on the performance and allow you to leave the distractions of the world outside behind. Streamed and broadcast theatre doesn’t have that luxury. However, despite competition from guinea pigs zooming around their pen and chowing down on some particularly crunchy lettuce, the strains of piano practice drifting through from the other room, and the general debris of day-to-day life around me, I found myself transported from my sitting room by the Old Vic In Camera: Playback broadcast of Faith Healer.
Opening with Michael Sheen, as the “Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer,” reciting a resonant roll call of the dying villages of Wales and Scotland, this production broadcast from an empty auditorium arrests the audience’s attention and draws them into the mythology of Friel’s haunting play.
And mythology it is, not of the valiant, ancient sort, but a mythology-by-necessity, as each character tells a mercurial, shifting story of touring parish halls of Wales and Scotland, offering hope of cures to others, but finding hurt themselves. Each omits, adds and alters the story; whether in deliberate acts of misdirection or genuine remembering and misremembering, we are never sure. Through this triptych of recollections, from Francis, Grace and Teddy, we build a picture of unhappy relationships, painful loss, equally painful love, and a trio grappling with faith and hope.
Under Matthew Warchus’ direction, Sheen deftly portrays the restlessness of Francis Hardy, the shifts in mood from a buoyant and charming performer, to the haunted uncertainty of a could-be-con-man, and Indira Varma’s Grace is a shaken, smarting character who feels achingly adrift. However, it is David Threlfall who steals the show as Hardy’s Cockney manager Teddy. His mastery of both comic and tragic timing is sublime, and the story comes vividly to life with a new spark as Threlfall flits between humorous tales of previous acts, including a difficult but brilliant bagpipe-playing whippet, and heart breaking moments of loss and love.
The design, with beautiful lighting by Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown, and Rob Howell’s set design comprised of a small selection of objects, each of which serves a clear dramatic use, is inventive and makes use of the unusual setting of the empty auditorium. By setting the play with the broadcast audience situated upstage, looking out to the vacant seats behind the performers, this does not pretend to be a normal theatre experience. It is a, for the most part successful, experiment in lockdown theatre. At times, the camera is too present, with shaky close ups making you aware that you are watching a filmed version of a play and sitting in an awkward space between theatre and film. However, to capture even a portion of the magic of live theatre and broadcast that to people in lockdown across the world is a laudable feat.
Though faith is a troubling entity in Friel’s play, this production is a reassuring exercise of faith in trying times. Seizing a window of opportunity between lockdowns, the Old Vic has produced a work that reminds us of the ‘breathless charm’ of theatre, and provides sustenance while stages are dark.