Farinelli and The King tells of the unification of two men who feel equally at odds with their position of privilege having been thrust upon them, and the role of the king’s wife, Isabella, in bringing them together. Farinelli (Sam Crane), who at only ten years old had his fate determined by a violent act of his brother, is set up to become one of the most angelic voices the world was to hear, a castrato internationally adored.
In 1737, King Philippe V of Spain (Mark Rylance), racked by insomnia and festering madness, is wanting of a remedy to this melancholy. His wife (Melody Grove) seeks the answer in the form of a voice, and she finds that the men bond over their joint unease at their positions in the world, a beneficial partnership forms whereby they serve to alleviate the hounding pressures intruding too greatly upon their reality, if only temporarily. The fragility of the king’s psyche encourages a sense of unease amongst his advisors, and though we can marvel at the splendour of Farenelli’s voice, we predict its pending termination, in some form or other.
Rylance is an absolute joy on stage and, during Farinelli’s song at the height of Act 2, he stands at the base of the stage and stares out to the audience, with a smile that spreads across his entire face and eyes that project youthful joy. He conducts the whole room to respond to the heavenly notes as he himself does. The audience play a role themselves: as townspeople coming to watch the legendary Farinelli, we do indeed sit in awe. Rylance is joined by Grove as his onstage wife, an actress he directed in The Old Vic’s Much Ado. Grove and Rylance have excellent chemistry onstage, an engaging familiarity with one another that creates a convincing friendship between the king and his second wife.
At the beginning of the second act, Philippe has made their isolation a physically realised one, transporting them to a forest with a hole hacked out in the middle, a haphazard attempt at bringing himself closer with his true kingdom, that in the heavens. His attempt at finding natural solace is humourously brought to being by destroying a part of nature itself. Suffocated by the stifling situation of fame, the king becomes his own prison warden, isolating his family in a tree lined-cage in the forest, locking them away in the depths of a green camp, whilst wrestling with his mental instability. The second act looses some of the narrative focus of the first, and instead looks to the music to invoke in the audience a sense of majesty that the king himself felt through Farinelli. The play includes many of the arias first sung by Farinelli, sung in this instance by Iestyn Davies.
Rylance’s performance hits unexpected rhythms that speak to the very heart of theatre. He can illicit the belief that he’s never before uttered the words that are about to tumble out of his mouth. It is an unexpected, engaging and playful performance that makes Claire van Kampen’s script come to a magical life.
It also helps that the Duke of York’s stage is made up like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse where, in February earlier this year, Farinelli and The King enjoyed a wildly successful run, selling out completely. The stage adorned with candlelight and intimate dimensions creates a chapel like space in the wider auditorium setting, a sacred and rare find in the West End district.
Farinelli and The King is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 5 December. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.