Farinelli and the King
Time Out says
Mark Rylance returns to star in new play with music 'Farinelli and the King'
If music be the food of love then ‘Farinelli and the King’ is a delicatessen of exquisite delights, in which the prime cut is the sensual richness of countertenor Iestyn Davies’s voice. Claire van Kampen’s play chronicles the extraordinary story of how the castrato Farinelli was invited to live at the court of Philip V of Spain, in order to cure his depression and instruct him in the music of the spheres.
The production, which features Van Kampen’s husband Mark Rylance as the depressive king, played to enthusiastic reviews in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe earlier this year. There it is possible to imagine its intimate, eccentric tone working delightfully – but here, in the less forgiving space of a West End theatre, it initially feels like a somewhat creaky enterprise.
The play opens with Rylance’s Philip V lying in bed while attempting to fish from a goldfish bowl. As Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron – the barrel-chested modern-day Falstaff of Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ – Rylance wowed the West End with his subversive machismo. Here he proves again that he is one of the great chameleons - as well as one of the great actors – of our age, in a performance which emphasises the childlike whimsicality of Philip’s disorder. Yet for a while the performance feels too skittish to engage us in the tensions his depression is clearly wreaking both in his marriage and in the kingdom of Spain as a whole.
Van Kampen’s play really sparks into life at the point when Philip’s queen Isabella (empathetically acted by Melody Grove) produces Sam Crane’s Farinelli as a possible ‘cure’ for his disorder. John Dove’s production has set up a device that means whenever Farinelli sings, Crane himself remains silent, while enacting the emotions of the music. A counter-tenor (on press night Iestyn Davies), dressed in the same costume as he, performs the song, gradually taking up the foreground of the stage as Crane recedes into the background. Davies’ beguiling performance makes it completely understandable why Philip V felt his music to be balm for the soul – the more the music is featured, the more hypnotic the production becomes.
As for the play itself, it suffers a little from over-jocularity and a tendency to wear its research too lightly - I for one would have been fascinated if Van Kampen had gone much deeper into this wonderful subject. Ultimately this feels like a patchy evening, though its rewards get much better the further it progresses.