It’s fair to say that a year ago a lot of people had not heard of Mark Rylance. He is one of our greatest actors and yet, until recently, he’s flown under the radar, largely keeping himself to one of the less commercial corners of British culture – the floorboards of ‘serious’ theatre. This all changed earlier this year though when Rylance took the lead in the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning, Wolf Hall, bringing Rylance suddenly to the attention of booklovers and television viewers alike in one masterful strike.
I first saw him on stage when he played Rooster in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and then as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Both plays were international hits, and yet the roles could not have been more different: one a drug-dealing squatter, the other a love-struck countess. Anyone that saw either of these will know that Rylance taking centre stage again is reason to rejoice.
Farinelli and the King is based on the true relationship struck between King Philippe V of Spain and Farinelli, a celebrated Italian castrato with a voice so angelic that anyone that heard him sing could not fail to be captivated. In 1737, the king’s wife, Isabella, having heard of the restorative nature of his singing, tracks Farinelli down to a star-struck London. Isabella is worried about her husband’s insomnia and depression (he is thought to have been bipolar), and she persuades Farinelli to come to Madrid and sing to the king. Farinelli’s first recital, however, is performed in Philippe’s absence, but on hearing the castrato’s voice floating into his bedchamber the king instantly snaps out of his depression and starts attending once again to his neglected royal duties. So captivated, in fact, does the king become by Farinelli that he orders the castrato to stay and sing to him every night, but, as portrayed in the play, Farinelli’s gift soon becomes the king’s drug and, with that, also a curse.
The play, first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, says a lot about the power (and fragility) of kingship, the nature of dependency, and our early understanding of music therapy, but it’s light on fact. More interesting is the relationship between the two men, both celebrated and world-renown, and yet neither, as the king points out, had chosen their positions – instead they were thrust upon them.
The production is naturally rich with song. Farinelli is played with charm by the suitably boyish Sam Crane, however it is opera singer Iestyn Davies, entering the stage to perform Farinelli’s arias, that received the biggest applause. Crane and Davies look and dress identical and it seemed to me at first an odd choice to have Crane standing there whilst Davies sings in his place, however as with each aria they begin to interact, the two performers merge quite beautifully into one. The Baroque music throughout is provided by six musicians up on a balcony, including musical director and harpsichordist Robert Howarth; and tickets can be bought to sit in amongst them or within boxes at the side of the stage where they are incorporated into the action with playful wit. The Duke of York’s Theatre in fact proves the ideal venue for such an intimate play, and is dressed with an ornate but simple set, lit almost entirely by candlelight.
However, this is Rylance’s show. Playwright, Claire van Kampen, is his wife and she has written a role any actor would bite their hand off to perform but which only Rylance could pull off with such lightness of touch. It’s a script laced with humour and Rylance gives the king much charm. He speaks much sense within his ramblings and the slightly bumbling nature of the king is a fascinating juxtaposition to the position of power he holds. Hampered somewhat by historical facts, I found that the play struggled to find a clear ending, and as a piece of theatre it was rather lacking in drama. However this in no way detracted from my enjoyment. In a West End season otherwise packed with high-octane productions it is refreshing to find a performance so sumptuous and delightful: pitch perfect, one might say, in almost every way.
Farinelli and the King
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
14 Sept – 5 Dec 2015
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room and, most recently, Devastation Road. His play Claustrophobia will have its London debut at The Hope Theatre, 17 Nov-5 Dec.
Read more about who the castrati were.