Farinelli and the King

When I walked into the Duke of York’s Theatre I gasped in amazement. The crew have worked flat-out to transport the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where Farinelli and the King premiered earlier this year, and it is stunning. The small, compact Duke of York’s is an ideal setting for the play anyway, but sitting as I was in the second row of the stalls (upgraded from a now-defunct row of on-stage seats), I felt as though I was actually in the Globe’s Jacobean playhouse.

Written by Claire van Kampen, the play centres on King Philippe V of Spain, stricken by an unspecified mental illness to the point that he can no longer undertake his royal duties. His wife, Isabella, tracks down the renowned castrato Carlo Broschi (“Il Farinelli”), persuading him to take up residence in Spain for the sake of the king. What follows is a work about the redemptive power of art and music.

Recently seen on-screen in Wolf Hall, the superb actor Mark Rylance plays King Philippe and is completely captivating, by turns warm, funny, vulnerable and chilling. We first meet him fishing in his goldfish bowl as he lounges on a chaise longue in a nightcap, but his initially benign presence becomes something more threatening, as his wife (Melody Grove) rushes to seek help.

Sam Crane is excellent as Farinelli, with countertenor Iestyn Davies performing his songs: an odd technique, but it works. The interactions between all three main characters is compelling to watch, as Farinelli’s beautiful singing helps to calm King Philippe’s mind.

I did think that the second half was a slight anticlimax after the first, and the plot seemed to “fade out” with no real resolution. However it’s worth seeing for Rylance’s performance alone, and it’s a hugely uplifting piece about the power of art.


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