Years ago, when I was a struggling actor, I worked in a West End theatre, first as an usher, then in the box office, behind the crush bar in the stalls, and finally as a stage-door keeper. As bartender, I served gin and tonics and warm white wine from a cupboard-like corner of the foyer, which backed onto a steep flight of stairs leading to the minuscule cloakroom, of which I was also in charge. Cloakroom tags were just sticky-taped raffle tickets (and on a busy night, reuniting punters with their belongings from the jumble of coats and bags was a nightmare). The so-called bar had just a cashbox and no till (which meant a perilous reliance on my erratic mental arithmetic), and no fridge. So one of my jobs was to venture into the murky bowels of the building to replenish my stocks of ice from an ancient chest freezer.
I always found this intensely unnerving, and not just because, like many of those grand old places, this one had a healthy population of rodents (which would even, on occasion, scurry across the stage mid-performance). What was disquieting was the prickly sensation of being watched. It felt not exactly malevolent, but undeniably skin-crawling, and it became no less so after I confessed my experience to the front-of-house manager. He told me that the theatre was reputed to be haunted; that there had been various sightings of both a male and a female phantom, as well as sudden inexplicable wafts of the latter’s distinctive perfume in otherwise empty corridors; and that a pest-controller working overnight to at least reduce the proliferation of mice had actually come face to face with a pale-faced women, whom he’d at first taken for a patron who’d somehow got locked in. When she abruptly vanished, he had reportedly realised he’d encountered a ghost and was, to quote my boss, “quite badly shaken.”
When I was transferred to stage door, one of my duties was to unlock the theatre and switch on the lights early on Saturday mornings. I was completely alone in the building until lunchtime, when I walked through the backstage passages, out of the wings, across the stage and through the stalls and the foyer to the front entrance, to let the box office staff in. Shortly after that, the cleaners would come in, followed by the actors and crew arriving for the matinee. But during those hours on my own there, I never felt entirely comfortable. And the weirdest sensation of all was standing on the stage, gazing out into the empty auditorium. The air felt electrified by the attention of an invisible audience, and also by all the emotions expelled into it, and soaking into the bricks, wood, marble and ornate plasterwork, over decades. All those dramas played out there; all the hopes and fears of the actors themselves, as well as the characters they portrayed; all the feelings they roused in the people who came to watch them.
That quality – that eeriness and mystery, that sense of ritual, that blend of artifice, imagination and human truth and connection – is what, at its heart, I think Brian Friel’s 1979 drama Faith Healer is about. It’s about an Irishman, Francis “Frank” Hardy, a travelling stage miracle worker who may or may not possess the gift of healing. The faithful and desperate come to his appearances to be cured, but even he isn’t quite sure whether or not he’s a fake, and his whole life is a performance – part charismatic mystic, part knowing parody of Celtic charm, poeticism and blarney – that is painful to maintain.
It’s also about his wife, Grace, who was destined for a career in the earthbound rationality of the law, but who instead dedicated her existence to Frank, and was drained and destroyed by his cruelty and magnificence. And it’s about Teddy, Frank's old Cockney vaudevillian manager, who worshipped them both, steeped in greasepaint and nostalgia, his whole career an absurd charade. Matthew Warchus’ new revival, as part of the Old Vic’s In Camera season, was performed and live streamed in a theatre full of unoccupied seats. Crowd noise was played before it began, as we sat in our separate homes, watching on screens. A mesmeric Michael Sheen as Frank stepped out of the darkness and stared straight into our eyes. It was heartbreaking. And it was very, very spooky.
The story unravels in a series of monologues, all resonant with loneliness and pain. Written around the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the play is also, of course, an exploration of Irishness, exile and homecoming. And it’s a testament to the slipperiness and unreliability of memory, the triptych of stories repeatedly contradicting one another. Warchus’ spare production was impeccably acted. Sheen’s tormented mountebank tried to conceal in bluff and charm how haunted by doubt and guilt he was. We felt the ache of Indira Varma’s Grace, clutching a cigarette, damning her husband to hell while still shivering sensually at his memory. Teddy, a flatulent, beer-bibbing, yarn-spinning David Threlfall in a stained armchair, revealed that Grace killed herself. And by the end of the play, Frank’s dead too, in a shocking act of self-destruction into which Sheen entered, arms spread, Christ-like. And how long, we wondered afterwards, could Threlfall’s Teddy survive, alone, grief-stricken and loveless?
Covid gives almost any substantial drama a new frame, forcing us to view it from a different angle. So this 41-year-old play suddenly became a ghost story for our pandemic. And it was, in a profoundly potent way, haunting.