For a moment you can’t see him clearly, but then the details start to emerge. His beard is grey. His natty suit looks like a disguise as if he is keeping something wilder, more despairing, at bay. He starts to recount the names of tiny Welsh villages as if mouthing a litany of the dead.
This man is Frank Hardy (Michael Sheen), an itinerant faith healer, who for years has been travelling to rural villages in Wales and Scotland in the company of Grace (Indira Varma), who may be his mistress or his wife, who may be from Yorkshire or elsewhere, and Teddy (David Threlfall), his manager.
Over the course of the next two-and-a-quarter hours we will hear from all three of them in long dense monologues, each delivered alone on stage, that lick over each other like tongues of flame and swirl around each other like eddies in a whirlpool. Their accounts have similarities but also deviations. You have to listen hard to these stories of a baby born on a rural Scottish road, an apparent miracle in a small Welsh hall. But the harder you listen the less certain you are about what you hear. These three are all unreliable narrators. Can we ever see any of them clearly? Or are they all each other’s fictions?
Michael Sheen as Frank
Brian Friel’s mighty play, which draws from the oral tradition of storytelling, and in which every word is so carefully chosen it has the explosive potential of a small hand grenade, is an inspired choice for the Old Vic’s In Camera season. When Frank, Grace and Teddy tell their stories each of them is so pitifully alone. For each of them it is as if loneliness has teeth and is gnawing them from the inside out.
It is a play that matches our own lonely uncertain times, and it is one that requires great actors and performances of pared back intensity. Sheen, Varma and Threlfall rise to the challenge, but it does require the audience to do the same. This is not an easy watch alone in your own home and the sheer waterfall of words requires concentrated attention and no distractions. That’s harder at home than in the theatre.
Indira Varma as Grace
In some ways, for a play that is so much about performance, truth and illusion, the capriciousness of talent, and theatre's indefinable magic, which works some nights but not on others, it seems a pity that the cameras linger so much on close ups rather than opening out onto the echoing emptiness of the auditorium itself. Oddly, by zooming in so much, some of the potency is lost, the sense of three people who feel they must put on a performance is diluted. As if what we are watching is another Talking Heads.
But there are moments of real power here from Teddy garrulous in his battered armchair like a second-rate magician delivering his patter, Grace sitting so straight and still it feels as if she might shatter into a million pieces if she moves, and Frank whose words slip slide away from him like treacherous icicles.
A man smiles at us and turns and walks into the light and disappears into the glare. It’s like a conjuring trick. But then you realise you haven’t been watching a man, but a ghost.