Friday, 16 October 2015

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance delivers an extraordinary performance in this compelling study of music and madness

Written by Michael Coveney
MichaelCoveneyThis fragile, unusual new play by the musician Claire van Kampen – starring her husband, Mark Rylance as the bipolar monarch, Philippe V of Spain – springs from the 18th-century case history of how the worldrenowned castrato, Farinelli, sang for the king every day for almost a decade.

Farinelli became, in effect, the king’s physician, and the play, in John Dove’s exquisite candlelit production, becomes a metaphor for the healing powers of music. And in an extraordinary embrace of the audience that only an actor, or comedian, as unusually gifted as Rylance can manage, we all share in the Baroque balm of the arias.

These are sung in Italian by the renowned counter-tenor Iestyn Davies (and at some performances by Rupert Enticknap or Owen Willetts), accompanied on period instruments, in the musicians’ gallery, which forms part of Jonathan Fensom’s design. What in other actors might come across as fey and irritating – the king is in a world of his own, talking to goldfish and gazing at the stars – is made tensile and riveting by Rylance. In some ways, he’s playing another back-to-nature dropout following his awardwinning blast as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem six years ago, but this is also Rylance at his most spiritually angelic and ethereal.

The performance seems to seep through his bones. He is hounded to sign the defence budget for 1738, fretted over by his second wife, Isabella Farnese – beautifully played by the aptly named Melody Grove – and cursed by the librettist and theatre owner, Metastasio (Colin Hurley), who wants Farinelli back on the boards to make him more money. And while Farinelli sings – the seven arias include five by Handel, ending with Lascia Ch’io Pianga (Let Me Weep) from Rinaldo – another actor, Sam Crane, also plays Farinelli in the dialogue scenes in identical costume. As Crane’s Farinelli is increasingly split between his loyalty to the king and his love for the queen, the duality of personality in the play is further investigated.

The king invites us, the audience, to listen to the music of the spheres with him deep in the forest. The play allows his private medication to go public. There’s a twist at the end when, years after the king has died, another, more mundane character asks a particular favour of Farinelli…

The play was first seen earlier this year at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe and that intimacy has been recreated in the Duke of York’s Theatre by taking the action into the audience and placing some customers in stage boxes, where they can eat out of the great actor’s hand; the intensity of this reciprocal affection is palpable.

Until 5 December at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2: 0844-871 7615, 

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