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Farinelli and the King

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 17, 2017

Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen. Directed by John Dove. Designer Jonathan Fensom. Lighting design by Paul Russell. Hair and wigs by Campbell Young Associates. UK costume coordinator Lorraine Ebdon-Price. Musical arranger Claire van Kampen. Cast: Sam Crane, Huss Garbiya, Melody Grove, Lucas Hall, Colin Hurley, Edward Peel, Mark Rylance, Iestyn Davies.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Sam Crane and Mark Rylance
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast," wrote William Congreve in 1697. That aphorism is put to the test in Claire van Kampen's Farinelli and the King, opening tonight at the Belasco Theatre. It is a play that takes place not long after Congreve penned those words, whose meaty central role of a bipolar 18th century monarch is ideally suited to the outsize personality of its star, Mark Rylance, who happens to be the playwright's husband.

The Shakespeare's Globe production, which brings together Spain's discombobulated King Philippe V (Rylance) and the renowned castrato singer Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane and sung by the countertenor Iestyn Davies), is a feast for the eye and ear. To start with, the set design will look very familiar to anyone who was at the Belasco four years ago for Rylance's last appearance there, a double bill of Shakespeare for which he won a Tony Award (his third) with his portrayal of Olivia in Twelfth Night, and also took on the title role in Richard III. Replicating the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, it features gilded paneled walls, on-stage seating for some audience members, musicians in an upper gallery, and lots of lovely candles to illuminate the sumptuous period costumes. Within the play, van Kampen, who also serves as musical arranger, sets aside a generous amount of space for performances of several Handel arias by the ethereal-voiced Mr. Davies.

The play opens with the king, unable to sleep, stretched out on a chaise and talking to a goldfish in a bowl he holds with one hand, while dangling a fishing line with the other. It all seems whimsical and improvised, a kind of audience-wink that Rylance is wont to engage in. Yet this moment, along with a number of other fourth-wall bending incidents, is not only scripted, it is quite reflective of the character of the sometimes-manic, sometimes-enraged, and often-frightened monarch. Like the poor goldfish that dies when the king overturns the bowl, Philippe is a fish out of water. He feels trapped in a life of dealing with matters of state and war, the titular head of a country not his own. He is French, after all, a grandson of Louis XIV, and married to the Italian Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). What are they doing in Madrid, he often wonders? It's undoubtedly a question that crosses the mind of Don Sebastian (Edward Peel), the country's chief minister, who would just as soon see the unstable and politically useless Philippe abdicate.

This is something that decidedly will not happen on Isabella's watch. Her solution: she will go to the opera house in London and recruit the great singer Farinelli to come back with her to Spain and use his vocal prowess to comfort Philippe's troubled soul and restore him to health.

And so it comes to pass. Philippe at first is quite suspicious and abrupt with Farinelli ("You were sent to report upon me? To them?"). But soon he warms to the singer, who, it seems, is content to leave behind the demands of an adoring crowd and sing only for an audience of one. And while the king is not cured of his afflictions, he is able to enjoy many peaceful days, especially when he moves with Isabella and Farinelli to a retreat in the forest, where they all enjoy an idyllic three months before reality can no longer be held at bay.

You would think it might be awkward to stage two individuals in a single role, but director John Dove manages things quite effectively. The actor Sam Crane and the singer Iestyn Davies (James Hall sings the role at some of the performances) are on stage together. They are similar in appearance and bearing, and they graciously make way for one another, moving upstage and downstage in turn. We benefit from both men's strengths, and the production is all the better for it. Mr. Crane, in particular, is the perfect foil for Mr. Rylance. Against the star's edgy, rambunctious performance, Crane's Farinelli is calm, centered, and quite content to be at a remove from the limelight.

Ms. van Kampen does her best work in contrasting these opposites. Among the other cast members, standouts are Mr. Peel as the exasperated government minister, and Colin Hurley as the British theater manager who loses his biggest draw to the Spanish court. Their roles are small, but their performances do them justice. The play's other major role, that of Isabella, is more nebulous. Though charmingly portrayed by Ms. Grove, we learn little about Isabella; she comes off as a woman without much personality of her own, who exists only to protect the king and to take it on the chin whenever Mr. Rylance's character goes into one of his rages.

The play is not without its flaws. Especially in Act II, things stray a little heavily into tangents in which Mr. Rylance is encouraged to flirt with the audience. He also shows up as another character late in the play, a tailor whose raison d'ĂȘtre seems solely to give the star one more bit to do. Ms. van Kampen additionally indulges in tossing in several show-off-y snippets of quotes from Shakespeare, and even a tacked-on borrowing from Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Nightingale."

While Mr. Rylance clearly dominates the stage, Farinelli and the King would not work nearly so well without the collaborative dance of Mr. Crane and Mr. Davies that brings Farinelli richly to life. The juxtaposition of king and singer, along with Jonathan Fensom's design elements and the Baroque musical performances by the skilled musicians under Robert Howarth's direction, makes for a lively and lovely theatrical experience. To throw in my own show-off-y Shakespeare quote: "If music be the food of love, play (and sing) on!"

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