REVIEW: Mark Rylance shines in a sumptuous “Farinelli and the King”

REVIEW: Mark Rylance shines in a sumptuous “Farinelli and the King”

It feels trite at this point, but it is nevertheless true that to see Academy and Tony Award winner Mark Rylance (“Jerusalem”, “Twelfth Night”) on the stage is to witness the sublime.

As King Philippe V of Spain (1683-1746) in the grip of madness—now thought to be bipolar disorder—Mr. Rylance is simply captivating in every single minute of his amusing and charming stage time in Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of “Farinelli and the King”, a new play by Claire van Kampen (incidentally, Mr. Rylance’s wife) that opened tonight at the beautiful Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

As the play begins, Mr. Rylance is wheeled out on a day bed, clad in a nightgown, clutching a fish bowl, having a full-on conversation with his goldfish.  This is the King of 18th century Spain, the first Frenchman to hold the title and the longest serving monarch in Spain’s history.  He’s gone mad, given to fits of erratic behavior and deep depression, keeping odd hours, plagued by insomnia, often going without bathing or shaving for weeks.  The true story of King Philippe’s wild moods is well-documented, and makes for a fascinating character and story in this light play.

Mr. Rylance is a singular and total actor who does not “act” so much as “become”.  His King Philippe is blunt, bumbling, playful, and pitiful.  It is a joy to observe him in this generous and illuminating performance.

The play itself, though, is nothing special, the plot thin and its execution serviceable.  But, luckily, the sum of this sumptuous, music-infused production is greater than its parts, thanks to a sterling design by Jonathan Fensom, smart direction by John Dove, and suite of wonderful performances by Mr. Rylance; Sam Crane, as celebrated 18th century Italian castrato singer Farinelli (1705-1782); and Melody Grove, as Isabella Farnese (1692-1766), the Italian-born Queen consort of Spain (Philippe’s wife).

As the court is awash with intrigue marshaled by Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (1687-1766) (Edward Peel), the Queen visits London where she discovers Farinelli, successfully wooing him back to Madrid and keenly predicting that his now-legendary boy soprano voice would lift the King’s spirits, mellow his mood, and preserve his crown.

And so the King becomes healed by Farinelli’s singing—an early example of music therapy—performed live by an onstage double, Iestyn Davies or James Hall (depending on the performance), and backed by a live, seven piece band of Baroque strings in a gallery above the stage.  Act II is a pastoral and restorative romp in the King’s forest-retreat, cut short by the intrigue festering in Madrid, and capped by a bittersweet conclusion.

Scenes without Mr. Rylance drag, feeling twice as long as they are, and the bond between King Philippe and Farinelli is not explored as deeply as it could be over the course of the 2-hours-plus running time.  Both men are kings with their own subjects: Philippe has the people of Spain and her colonies, and Farinelli his adoring, swooning fans.  Both men are also imposters playing roles, robbed of their normalcy and agency: Philippe born to a royal lineage and Farinelli castrated at age ten—too young and too old.  These men are prisoners of their (albeit privileged) circumstance.  The drama of their relationship largely consists of Farinelli wishing to leave the court, and the King convincing him to stay.  I wish there was more exploration of these men’s minds and their beguiling relationship.

Faults aside, “Farinelli and the King” remains a delightful present of a show.  The neo-Georgian décor of the Belasco’s auditorium fuses seamlessly with Jonathan Fensom’s courtly 18th century set.  The much-hyped candle-lit performance is, to my disappointment, aided by dimmed houselights, but remains thoroughly enchanting nonetheless.  Even more noticeable, and effective, is the lack of microphones or amplified sound, which requires the ear to magically adjust (and it does!) and produces a more silent and attentive house than normal—a treat for the modern theatregoer besieged with gratuitous coughs, unnecessary throat clearing, and noisy, prolonged candy unwrapping.

Mr. Rylance’s performance, alone, is worth the price of admission, and what “Farinelli and the King” might lack in depth it more than makes up for in spirited delight.

Bottom Line: Mark Rylan shines as King Philippe descending into madness in “Farinelli and the King”, a light, present of a play granted a sumptuous, candlelit and music-infused production on Broadway.  I recommend you catch a performance of this acclaimed and strictly limited import from Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Farinelli and the King
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: December 17, 2017
Final Performance: March 25, 2018 (limited engagement)
Discount Tickets (through January 28th)

tl;dr for December 18th

NOTES: It’s Christmas in New York!

NOTES: It’s Christmas in New York!