'Farinelli and the King': Theater Review

Courtesy of Simon Annand

Immaculate performances elevate a slightly underwhelming text.

Mark Rylance stars as a monarch whose madness can only be tempered by the angelic voice of the world's most famous castrato in this West End transfer from Shakespeare's Globe.

After a sold-out run at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, playwright Claire van Kampen's Farinelli and the King brings its heady mix of music and madness to London's Duke of York's Theatre. Although the play itself is structurally a bit ragged in places, any flaws are more than compensated for by the lush glories of the performances from singer Iestyn Davies and actor Sam Crane jointly playing 18th-century court castrato Farinelli, and the Globe's former artistic director and biggest star Mark Rylance as the bipolar monarch Philippe V. With demand high — especially after Rylance's exposure from the TV series Wolf Hall and Steven Spielberg's upcoming Bridge of Spies — the show is unlikely to get the chop before the end of its run in December, while a Broadway transfer seems a strong possibility.

Bringing some of the Globe's signature lo-fi aesthetic and intimacy from the south bank to the West End, the production, once again directed by John Dove and designed by Jonathan Fenson, eschews amplification and uses one baroque-themed set for the duration, scantily dressed with props and flimsy backdrops according to need. The basic electric lighting remains constant and low-key throughout, supplemented by real candles in hanging candelabras and sconces on stage while the cast carries lit tapers with them into their scenes. Even the brocade costumes themselves speak in hushed, golden tones. An in-the-round illusion is inventively imposed on the venue's proscenium-arch layout via audience seating on stage. All these retro effects combine to create a festive, fireside atmosphere that's well suited to a play deeply concerned with the dichotomy between public and private.

The basic narrative arc posits why Farinelli, aka Carlo Broschi (1703-1782), at the height of his fame in 1737, forsook the stages of Europe and ended up staying for over 20 years at the Spanish court. He became the King's own private songbird and proto-music therapist after it was discovered that only the ethereal sound of Farinelli's voice could soothe the royal mania. In other words, it dwells mostly on those parts of the historical record ignored by the 1994 film Farinelli. That account preferred to dwell on the singer's more lurid relationships with his brother Riccardo (who was also, as is mentioned here, the person who castrated Carlo at the age of 10), Handel and many adoring female fans.

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The play's version of the singer couldn't be more different from the strutting, quasi-rock star played by Stefano Dionisi in the movie. Instead, here he's a modest, kind-hearted sort of chap who almost seems to consider his musical gift a freakish, oppressive burden. Showing an admirably historical understanding of character, van Kampen's Farinelli appears only too happy to bring succor to the distraught king, a man who is after all, to a 17th century mind, only a few rungs down from God in the Great Chain of Being. That said, the second part sketches in an extra, more quotidian motivation when Farinelli locks lips with Queen Isabella (Melody Grove, whose own aptly euphonious delivery and fine performance makes a key contribution to the show's overall polish).

No doubt it was partly a practical decision to have the acting portion of the role performed by Crane while renowned countertenor Davies, dressed in matching costumes, sings the arias onstage beside him. But of course bifurcating the part between the two performers also handily underscores that public-private duality theme, which applies just as much to the King.

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Like Farinelli, Philippe is a man who has had greatness, or at least fame and power, thrust upon him through decisions made by others when he was just a boy. Rylance's complexly layered performance gives the character a posh kid's public-school stutter, but his diffident natural manner can turn on a dime to sardonic hauteur, antic whimsy, groping lustfulness, foul-mouthed coarseness or violent fury. Rylance gets to play with all the colors in his famously broad palette for this part, clearly written expressly for him. (Van Kampen is, after all, his romantic life partner.) It's a joy to watch, and no less virtuoso a display of skill as Davies' — musical in its own way to boot.

Although she has also written other works (Nice Fish) and directed productions for the Globe and other outfits, van Kampen is best known for her work as a musical director and scholar. (She composed the period-style musical accompaniment for the Globe's Twelfth Night/Richard III double bill with Rylance, a smash on Broadway in 2013.) That training shows here not just in the centrality of music to the story, but also in the accuracy of the musical choices and the performers' pitch-perfect execution.

But as a dramatist, van Kampen's touch is less assured. The shifts of power and allegiance, especially in the second half, sometimes feel too abrupt and unearned, and the supporting characters are thinly drawn, especially courtier De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) and Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya). With the latter's talk of the "music of the spheres" and penchant for astronomy, you would think he'd have a key role in harmonizing the play's disparate themes, but he remains a cipher, perhaps due to Garbiya's underpowered performance.

In the end, something ineffable is lacking, a heft to the writing, that limits the production's broader appeal. It feels like the material could have been rich enough for something on an operatic level, but instead what we get is a chamber piece, pleasant and admirable, but just a touch slight.

Cast: Sam Crane, Mark Rylance, Melody Grove, Iestyn Davies, Matthew Darcy, Huss Garbiya, Colin Hurley, Edward Peel, Rupert Enticknap, Owen Willets
Playwright: Claire van Kampen
Director: John Dove
Set & costume designer: Jonathan Fensom
Musical arranger: Claire van Kampen
Movement director:  Sian Williams
Voice and dialect: Martin McKellan
Candle technician: Katherine Tippins
Production: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Shakespeare's Globe, in association with Tulchin Bartner Productions, 1001 Nights