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Review: Farinelli and the King

Iestyn Davies, Mark Rylance, Huss Garbiya, and Melody Grove (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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                                                                                    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If anyone’s Broadway royalty, it’s Mark Rylance. He’s won three Tony awards, most recently in 2014 as the Countess in Twelfth Night. That same year he was also nominated for the lead role in Richard III. Now he’s back on Broadway playing another monarch, King Philippe V of Spain in Farinelli and the King at the Belasco Theatre.

Philippe was the grandson of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV of France, and though this production boasts an excellent, largely British cast, Rylance is the sun which they revolve around. Based on history, the king is clearly an idiosyncratic character. He sleeps at odd hours, he talks to goldfish. Is he mad? Unstable for sure, and causing grief for his loving, long-suffering wife, Queen Isabella (Melody Grove), and impatient chief minister, Don Sebastian de la Cuadra (Edward Peel). Isabella has the inspired idea to import a famous singer, a castrato known as Farinelli, to sing for the king. When he does, the king’s moods stabilize. “Music hath charms to sooth a savage breast,” said Congreve, and modern science has shown the true healing power of music.

The role of Farinelli is played capably by Sam Crane, but the singing is done by Iestyn Davies, a renowned countertenor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Crane and who appears alongside him onstage. This allows us to see Farinelli’s own reaction to his vocal gift as something outside himself and also leads to a marvelous coup de theatre, akin to Angels in America, to end Act One.

In a Shakespearean touch, Act Two is set in a forest, as the king is determined to escape the palace and live simply with his wife and Farinelli. The script, by Rylance’s wife, Claire Van Kampen, gingerly tosses out some cosmic references to the music of the spheres and to the notion that vegetables have rights, but never really reaches anything profound. It’s her first play – Van Kampen’s been a composer and music director – so forgive her its flaws. It’s still very entertaining, and with Rylance’s expressive face and deceptively off-handed delivery, often very funny. While the dialogue is contemporary, the costumes are gloriously 18th century, and the scenic design is beautiful (with a couple dozen lucky theatergoers seated on either side of th stage).

Near the end of the play Farinelli is reluctant to continue serving the king when Philippe appears to be healthy. He’s persuaded to continue, but we see that as much as the play concerns the healing power of music, it also addresses the burden that a sublime gift can be for an artist. What is his responsibility to do with it? In Farinelli’s case, after serving Philippe and his successor, he never sang in public again.

By combining the brilliant singing of Davies with the brilliant acting of Rylance, Farinelli and the King provides a therapeutic salve for our spirits in the winter of our discontent.