Brilliantly performed twaddle: Old Vic’s Faith Healer reviewed

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Faith Healer

Old Vic, via Zoom


Stephens House and Gardens

The Old Vic refuses to reopen. Director Matthew Warchus says the social distancing rules make it impossible for him to reach the 70 per cent capacity he needs to break even. That was true in the old days when the Vic had to put on lavish fare and tempt audiences away from the opulent variety of the West End. But the competition has gone. Warchus is free to mount cheap, simple dramas which recoup their costs quickly. Curiously, this is what he’s doing with Brian Friel’s three-hander, Faith Healer, but the show is performed in an empty house and watched live by spectators via Zoom. The pandemic has made Warchus allergic to playgoers. What a shame. When Lilian Baylis ran the Vic during the Great War she kept it open even when Zeppelins were bombing London. ‘What’s an air-raid,’ she famously boasted, ‘when my curtain’s up?’

Faith Healer, written in 1980, is set during the pinched post-war years when disease and physical deformity were commoner than they are now. We meet Francis Hardy, a Limerick charlatan, who cures the sick in failing towns on the coastal fringes of Scotland and Wales. He’s a grotesque human specimen, an alcoholic fantasist, who has wasted his talent on a dead-end career and who takes out his frustrations on his sad, needy wife. He travels with a sidekick from London, Teddy, who promotes the show and drives the van.

The whole thing is hokum, of course, but Friel is good at conjuring an atmosphere of rural squalor and spiritual decay. ‘As soon as darkness fell, a few would begin to sidle in,’ says Hardy of his audiences who rarely number more than a dozen. The sick are not there to be healed, he admits, but wanted ‘confirmation that they were incurable’. Friel never explains how Hardy’s hocus-pocus can generate enough funds to support him, his clingy wife and their theatrical agent. Who pays for the petrol, food and lodgings? Can Hardy really afford to demolish two bottles of whisky every day? Back then, spirits were much costlier than they are now and a hard-up dipso would probably have drunk meths. It’s surprising to hear that Hardy’s list of fetid backwaters includes Aberaeron. This upmarket resort on Cardigan Bay is celebrated for its rows of handsome townhouses. It was never a broken-down squatter camp inhabited by blind, limping paupers.

Friel’s twaddle is brilliantly performed by Michael Sheen, floridly bearded, his eyes ablaze, vividly suggesting the con man’s bitter guilt. Indira Varma brings some much-needed charm to the depressed, bleating wife, Gracie. And Friel, for his part, lays on oodles of five-star blarney. Here’s Gracie describing a bust-up with her ghastly husband: ‘Things were said that should never have been said and lay afterwards on our lives like slow poison.’ Celine Dion could turn that into a nice ballad.

David Threlfall struggles to impersonate Teddy, a Jewish Cockney, because his character rings false. He talks like Fagin — ‘Believe me, my dear heart’ — and he uses Irish and not English syntax. Londoners don’t say ‘a boy, it was’; they say: ‘It was a boy.’ Gracie’s pivotal moment comes when she gives birth in the middle of the night. The child is dead. Hardy has vanished. Teddy takes a shovel and digs a makeshift grave which he marks with a plain white wooden cross. Naturally he was travelling with the right equipment for a stillborn infant’s funeral. He knew he was in a Friel play and had come prepared.

The idea for Renaissance struck the author Charles Ward while he was bicycling in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas. ‘A play about Leonardo, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia,’ he thought to himself. He researched the material in the ‘back stacks of the London Library’ and became equally fascinated by three Italian noblewomen of the time. So he chucked them into the script as well. Good idea? Not at all. Spreading the focus of a single drama across six characters makes the audience unsure where to concentrate their interest and who to support. Imagine watching three tennis matches at once. There’s another problem with this well-acted and beautifully dressed play: the writer’s obsession with symmetrical dualities. Leonardo enters and announces that he’s using a false name, ‘Francesco’.

Does he have a surname? ‘Francesco,’ he answers. So Leonardo is ‘Francesco Francesco’. When Lucrezia Borgia arrives she disguises herself as a Frenchwoman. Later, confusion arises over the sitter for a portrait. Is it to be Isabella d’Este or Caterina Sforza?

The script is written in rhyming couplets, often ingeniously composed, but they add to the sense of artificiality. This is an admirable work of art marred by overcomplexity. A chess grandmaster who was also an expert in Renaissance painting and politics would enjoy it tremendously at the third or fourth viewing.

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