Smart work from the Old Vic

The Old Vic shows the way

On Theatre

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I am developing an algorithm to predict what mid-Covid period theatre will look like. As it is live-streamed, it needs a star — preferably one with a loyal TV or film audience to sell out quickly — and a small ensemble. The National Theatre’s misfortune is that its vast main stages lend themselves to big epic plays like Brecht or Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin (which was on stage when the lockdown curtain fell). Covid-era economics demand the opposite — tight casting and not too much spare space, making camera angles easier.

The Old Vic has already produced smart programming of this new ilk for its “In Camera” season, which sees plays staged (almost) like the old days: audiences buying online tickets for Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, which seemed an odd choice at first glance. No disrespect to Friel’s talents, but his heyday seemed to have passed from all those productions of Translations and a diehard place alongside Timberlake Wertenbaker on the A level curriculum.

The key to successful production directed for audiences at home is a lead you want to watch for a couple of hours

Somehow I missed out on Faith Healer, which turns out to be well-suited to the Old Vic mode of buying your online ticket and settling into your seat at home at the appointed hour. Unlike National Theatre Live in cinemas, this does feel more like a theatre experience than merely streaming past productions on the internet.

The key to successful production directed for audiences at home is a lead you want to watch for a couple of hours. Michael Sheen is a natural booking, having one of the most watchable and protean faces in drama, a perfect fit for Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s The Queen, Brian Clough in The Damned United and the coughing major in Quiz. Naturally grandiloquent in the Welsh tradition, Sheen is “a creature of the stage, fiery and mercurial”, as Sam Mendes has described him.

So the role of “The Fantastic Francis Hardy: Faith Healer”, a mixture of shaman, fraud and unreliable narrator, suits him down to his worn-down boots. The question is whether he believes his own guff or not always hangs in the air. Of Translations, Friel wrote, “It is about language and nothing but language,” and that goes for this offering too. Monologue-rich pieces had seemed a bit out of favour with a generation of theatre writers attuned to quickfire dialogue. But Faith Healer reminds us of the mesmeric power of storytelling, weaving four tales into a loosely-connected whole, as we chart the course of Frank’s rackety business, while his common-law wife Grace (Indira Varma) succumbs to a fatal depression — the flip side of living with Hardy’s performative illusion.

David Threlfall, an actor who seems to have bucked unemployment — I reviewed him recently here in Beckett’s trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre — plays Frank’s gone-to-seed manager with a client list of bagpipe-playing dogs and “miracle” turns. Our anti-hero deploys language to “re-create everything around him”, refashioning memory, existence and editing reality to suit his stories — and as dated as the notion of a travelling shaman is in 2020, who doesn’t know people who specialise in doing just that?

The story works its escapist magic on us because Friel understands that language gives power but can easily take it away when words fail. Frank’s collapse of confidence in the latter part of the play is an intensified version of the weird terror we can feel when we say something funny that doesn’t amuse, or choose the wrong phrase at a sensitive moment.

Filming theatre is still an evolving art form. The temptation is to try to ape screen techniques, which can end up with uncomfortably close-ups without the benefit of TV lighting and the wrong make-up, but this is a form of improvisation, so let’s roll with it.

My question to the Old Vic is simply: why such a short run? Five performances means it is easy even for enthusiasts to miss and these performances deserve an afterlife. Matthew Warchus’s updated A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne (Shameless, Skins), will run for rather longer (12-24 December) and I will definitely be in the virtual stalls, if only to avoid having to review socially-distanced panto instead.

One question which has played on my mind since lockdown closed theatres and furloughed so many of their staff (and spare a thought too for the many freelancers who have fallen short of entitlement to government support) is: why doesn’t theatre follow opera in considering more semi-staged work? I spent many Sunday lunchtimes in Vienna watching some of their best actors performing semi-staged plays at the Burgtheater.

Garsington Opera opted for a semi-staged Fidelio as the production it could rescue from its annual festival, and surely wins the award for triumph over adversity. Peter Mumford directed by Zoom calls (from Vienna coincidentally), adapting the action using images of incarceration and the occasional gory Hollywoodesque bloodwash projected on a screen at the back of the stage.

A heavily-reduced orchestra (Douglas Boyd conducting) played its socks off and we sat in our two-by-two seating plan with empty spaces in between (which lends auditoriums a bit of a Noah’s Ark vibe). When so much of theatre and opera has pulled back from any attempt at live performance, it was an uplifting occasion.

True, Garsington has the advantage of being a medium-sized venue with plenty of routes out of its semi-permanent construction to the fresh air of the Getty estate at Wormsley. And we’re not as readily transported to a Spanish prison in the late 1700s as we would be on a full set. But then again Fidelio is an odd beast, caught between the cat-and-mouse of “escape opera” and Beethoven’s desire to celebrate the nobility of resistance to tyranny.

Minimalist staging helps distract us from this awkward segue, with a mighty-voiced Katherine Broderick as Leonore and Toby Spence as Florestan. But if semi-staging can’t bring us the full visual impact and we lose out on the catharsis of the lovers reunited, it is a whole lot better than no staging at all. None of this comes cheap and needs extra help from public-spirited donors, but it is more financially viable than a return to full production anytime soon. Good news as the open-air season fades from memory — this Fidelio is now available to stream at home on the website. Frustrated theatre directors — and backers with semi-deep pockets — might take a look as theatre ponders life beyond the full-fat model.

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