It’s a ridiculous result of the restrictions of livestreamed theater that one of the best performances to emerge from the new medium is also one you might never get to see.
But having caught the Saturday evening performance for critics — on closing day of a three-day run — I have to tell you about it anyway. In the hourlong monologue “Three Kings” by Stephen Beresford, Zoomed from the Old Vic in theater-deprived London, the Irish actor Andrew Scott seems to squeeze all the roles for which he’s become known, from a thin-skinned Hamlet to the so-called Hot Priest in “Fleabag,” into one soulful, awful, sorry excuse for a man.
Or boy, as we find him: an 8-year-old named Patrick, enthralled and sickened upon meeting his wastrel father for the first time. Dad is a charmer with several wives overboard and several more to come; he’s the kind of man who, showboating for a child he abandoned at birth, thinks it’s good parenting to teach him a coin trick that is sure to make him a hit in pubs.
“One can be touched and moved, one can be touched and not moved, one can be moved but not touched,” he says, describing the three kings (that is, coins) of the title. The challenge is to reorder them in a specific way despite the daunting limitations. The prize if Patrick succeeds? His father will someday visit again.
But do not cry for the unloved boy, or not much; he eventually masters the trick too well.
Yes, the coin metaphor is heavy-handed: Patrick will spend his life seeking and avoiding contact and engagement. But Scott nevertheless makes the scene expressive, investing fully in the boy’s need to please and also, switching voice, stance and tone, in the father’s need to dominate. Even without listening you can tell which character is which, by the position of Scott’s eyes and by the arc of his hands as they test or fondle the air.
Yet you want to listen; until it becomes heartbreaking, Beresford’s script is nasty fun. As Patrick grows up, and his father grows more erratic, their few interactions become venomous and mutually pathetic. Even worse are their non-interactions, when Patrick discovers through others — a fixer, a dumped wife, another guy named Patrick he meets in a pub — just how little someone can care for his offspring.
This is a story about the corruption of souls: men’s souls in particular — as if toxic disregard were a spiritual birthright from the parent who could not give physical birth. The women in Patrick’s life, whom Scott sketches with equal finesse but no unwarranted sympathy, are mostly enablers and patsies. (One ex blames Patrick for ruining his father’s life.) If you were to judge humanity from this play’s samples of it, you would flunk men flat out but not score women much higher. And you would avoid judging children only long enough to watch them become adults.
Patrick’s transition from lovesick boy to careworn man is central to the shock and strength of Scott’s performance. In the brief pauses between scenes, as the director Matthew Warchus carefully adjusts his camera angles and sometimes splits the screen as if Patrick were coming apart, Scott fearlessly leaps from one stage of his fragmenting personality to another. The abused 8-year-old is suddenly the blasé college student; the angry young man is soon the emotional dropout, nearly as bad as his father and halfway pickled in gin. When Scott shows us Patrick opening his heart, it is only long enough to permit a satisfying click as he snaps it shut again.
At the end of the road for Patrick lies perpetual alienation, and you feel sorry for him even though he offers no excuses. The push-pull is marvelous; as Warchus fades to black excruciatingly, leaving Scott’s eyes to burn demonic pinpoint holes in the dark, you don’t know whether to cry or run.
Or clap — for now there is a loud ovation, well deserved but (like the audience hubbub preceding the top of the show) profoundly confusing. “Three Kings” was streamed live, as part of the Old Vic’s In Camera series, from the company’s otherwise shut-down theater, with no customers in its red and gold auditorium. Who is applauding? For that matter, who is the announcer announcing to when she says, five minutes before the start, “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats”? And why is the virtual audience limited to the 1,000 or so the Old Vic accommodates live? It could surely sell many more online tickets if it chose.
To me these strange details betray unnecessary uncertainty about whether In Camera productions really “count” as theater. (The name of the series, which began in June with Claire Foy and Matt Smith in “Lungs,” seems to underline that doubt.) Yes, “Three Kings” uses film techniques — not just the split screens but cross-fades and edits — to help tell the story, but the story itself is conceived as no film would be, with no scenery, minimal music and one man playing all the roles. Scott’s performance is likewise scaled not to the camera’s small eye but to the huge empty space he’s actually in. The roar of pain he lets loose near the end would tear a movie screen off its wall.
So let’s stop quibbling about or finessing the genre. Let plays be plays. But can we not take just one great thing from the movies: the chance to see them again? We are missing enough these days as it is.
Performed Sept. 3 through 5 via Zoom; oldvictheatre.com.