Sunday 4 October 2015

Farinelli and the King - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Claire van Kampen
Directed by John Dove

Mark Rylance

At the age of 32, at the very height of a superstardom today reserved for the Hollywood A-list, the great 18th Century castrato Farinelli turned his back on the stage, never to return, to sing for only one man – Philippe V, the King of Spain. The King, suffering from a madness brought on by depression, could only find solace and sanity in Farinelli’s heavenly tones.

This apparently true historical titbit is the basis of Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, recently transferred from the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to the Duke of York’s Theatre. At the play’s heart is an attempt to imagine the relationship between these two men, both ‘Kings’ in their own spheres and explain their friendship. And it is in exploring the dichotomy of these private, ordinary men and the public roles that they were forced to play that the piece is most interesting. After telling Farinelli how he became King, Philippe asks ‘When were you robbed of your normality?’

That dichotomy is given literal form in the case of Farinelli since the character is played by two men on any given night – Sam Crane taking a speaking role and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies joining him on stage to portray the singing superstar. This device, no doubt born out of necessity (countertenors of Davies’ quality are rare enough without expecting them to also be capable of acting the lead in a West End play), works well. Crane’s diffident ordinariness is a fine contrast to Davies’ strutting, golden-voiced megastar and it is Davies who provides many of the show’s highlights, aided by Robert Howarth's fine band. 

Of course, most of the audience had come not so see Farinelli but the King. Few actors are capable of playing bewildered, childlike madness as magnetically as Mark Rylance. At turns broadly comic, at others brooding and sinister, it is a predictably fine performance by one of the finest stage actors of his generation. And yet, there is perhaps a suspicion that a part so obviously written for him (van Kampen is his wife) has resulted in a one that he could do with his eyes closed without ever really needing to be at his glorious best – essentially a watered down version of his Richard II. 

Whilst the sometimes thin script provides fine moments of both humour and pathos, it at times straying dangerously close to Blackadder territory. Melody Grove in particular, has a rather thankless ‘one note’ task as Philippe’s long-suffering wife Isabella and neither she nor Crane convince in a predictable and possibly unnecessary love triangle.

Thank goodness, then, for the glorious music and the sublime voice of Davies, whose interjections bolster the piece. The scintillatingly beautiful “Lascia ch’io pianga” that closes the play is as memorable a moment as you will see on stage all year.

Runs until 5th December 2015

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