Review: Faith Healer

Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

Old Vic In Camera: Playback

22/01/21

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.

Fight Back 2020 Festival – Week 2

For thoughts from the first week of Fight Back 2020 Festival, click here.

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I’m used to theatre festivals meaning a few weeks of running around, subsisting on sandwiches slightly squashed in pockets as I clock up the kilometres between venues, and taking up residence in corner seats of theatre or near-the-theatre cafés imbibing coffee and probably crisps as I type up my reviews in the brief gaps between shows. It has felt a little strange to travel no further than the distance between the back garden where I lazed in the sun watching the first two of this week’s performances, to the couch in the sitting room where I watched the second two performances after the breeze outside threatened to steal the pages I was writing on. However, though Fight Back 2020 Festival is not a normal theatre festival, it has still brought the work of some of Ireland’s talented writers and performers to the fore.

The second week of the festival opened with a delightful monologue written by Ultan Pringle. Toffee, performed by Clelia Murphy, tells the story of a Aisling, who is going on a first date with a woman at the National Gallery Café. While she waits for her date to arrive, she tells the audience about her experience of going to university in her mid-40s, after a divorce, and raising her two grown up children. There are no major twists or surprises in the 15-minute monologue, but none are needed. Exactly the sort of heart-warming story that is called for in these trying times, Toffee is as sweet as its title.

Day six of the festival brings another love story, but not such a straightforward one. A hilarious and slightly bizarre lockdown story, Ali Hardiman’s Hug takes the form of a lockdown diary inspired by Matt Damon’s video diaries in The Martian. As she grumbles about her neighbours, reminisces about her childhood friend Jack, and reveals the difficulties in her family. Bringing an interesting twist to escapism, Clíodhna, played by Madi O’Carroll, will certainly make you laugh but will also make you pause and think.

Ella Skolimowski’s monologue Pandemic Panic, tells the story of a very different reaction to the Covid-19 lockdown. Aneta Dina Kedar plays a very stressed character who is struggling to manage her OCD while in lockdown. Though the monologue is funny in moments, it is also a tense watch which clearly conveys the fear and panic that the character is feeling.

The final day of Week 2 brought a comic story of a time machine in a wardrobe. Written by David Halpin and performed by Jed Murray, Backwards and Forwards takes the form of a FaceTime call, in which the main character is excitedly discussing the dilemma of whether to go backwards or forwards in time with his newly constructed wardrobe time machine in order to save the world. Though it is light-hearted and funny on the surface, Backwards and Forwards, like many of the other monologues this week, also conveys the frustration and uncertainty of a character in lockdown.

Fight Back 2020 Festival continues until 24th April.

Fight Back Festival and Theatre in Lockdown

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.

It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.

As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.

The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.

The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.

Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.

When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs,  the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option.  As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”