There are a number of points of magic in Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, a Broadway transfer from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London where the production played in 2015.
Some of these magic components are entirely expected and others pleasingly present themselves to you, and stay with you for two and a quarter hours.
These bewitching pivots help to carry you past the play’s thin and mostly wanly eventless plot, and the frustrating mysteries of some of the characters, because as soon as you step inside the Belasco Theatre it feels like a magic box, or TARDIS to the past. Be transported.
The first entirely expected magic component is the composer and playwright’s husband Mark Rylance (last seen as a unassuming but strong and determined boat savior in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), whose name and fame possibly will motivate many of those buying tickets for this Broadway show to do so.
They will not be disappointed. Rylance plays King Philippe V of Spain, a mercurial 18th-century monarch who is alternately all-powerful and also a vulnerable, nervous wreck. In the pantheon of mad kings, he is a more prancing King Lear.
We first see him observing his best friend, a goldfish. One minute he wants to go to war, the next he wants to live in solitude in the woods, which he does. Rylance covers all his the king’s friable mental bases, wittily and sometimes terrifyingly. He talks to direct to us as a modern audience, an 18th-century audience, and sometimes he just mugs to us for the sake of it. A moment later he will be screaming on his knees.
The cure for the King’s psychological malady is the celebrated castrato singer, Farinelli, who Philippe’s wife Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove) comes to believe was the single thing that can rouse her husband from his depressions. And so, beyond the emotional tempests and strange, modern-worded outbursts Rylance executes, there is also the beautiful singing of Iestyn Davies, who sings on stage as the double of Sam Crane who plays Farinelli as an actual character.
They are dressed the same, and when Davies appears you know music will strike up. Davies sings nine arias in total—all from Handel operas—and these musical expositions are all so strikingly and beautifully executed they throw into cruel contrast the dramatic passages Crane must negotiate.
Davies’ singing is peerless, yet dramatically it never feels as if we get at the heart of Farinelli (beyond coming to understand how upsetting and destabilizing it was to be castrated at a young age). Farinelli’s relationship with the King, which the title implies is the impetus of the piece, is also a puzzle.
We can see how desperate the King is to have Farinelli around, and we can see how desperate the queen is to have Farinelli around, as it makes her life and marriage—and the unpredictable rages of her husband—that much bit easier to handle.
But the play doesn’t properly bring to knowable life Farinelli himself, his life, his desires, what he gets out of being this very special member of court. Crane plays as a shy, regular guy, rather than one of the most famous opera singers of all time. (Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 movie bought him to slightly more vivid life, but was not loved by the critics.)
There is one moment in the play, just one, when the King and Farinelli’s relationship is freighted with an ambiguous intimacy, and it was quickly cast aside.
Instead, there is a subplot about the machinations of John Rich (Colin Hurley), the producer who managed the Theatre Royal, in Covent Garden, and who wanted Farinelli back on the boards in London earning him some money, as opposed to being a royal plaything.
Throughout, both in Spain and London, van Kampen wants to underline what a crucial moment this was in terms of the evolution of theater itself, the notion of audience; and so it is we find ourselves imagined by the King nervously as his woodland audience. The actors peer out at us so tentatively we truly imagine ourselves as their first pairs of eyes. Some of the audience sits on the stage itself.
A romantic sub-plot also blooms between Farinelli and Isabella. You fear for them when the King finds out, but Grove plays Isabella with an intriguing double-edgedness to her. She is sharp and witty, yet devoted and pliant. She knows how to negotiate and survive the intrigues of court life. Grove is such a charismatic performer, more from her would have been welcome too.
The play, to be fair, does not aspire to be encyclopedic. It is, like Farinelli’s operas, an entertainment—and one specifically for Rylance to play with all manner of facial expressions and tones.
If the story palls, look around you. Director John Dove uses every bit of the theater, with actors going up and down the aisles, and musicians, led by Robert Howarth on harpsichord, placed in the gods. Jonathan Fensom’s design is your own visual test for the evening: The theater is lushly paneled, as if we are indeed at court, with descending screens signifying different settings.
But the other bit of truly crucial magic is Paul Russell’s lighting. Six chandeliers filled with candles act as the stage’s main illumination. There are candles all around the stage in boxes. Where is the other light coming from? Seemingly from the existing, beautiful lighting of the Belasco, which is variously raised and lowered in intensity. Perhaps Russell has hidden other lighting genius more surreptitiously. Whatever, your eyes and ears will leave Farinelli happy indeed.
Farinelli and the King is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., NYC. Book tickets to March 25, 2o18, here.