King Philippe V (Mark Rylance) is having a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-day. Every day of every week. All of them. 24/7. Imported from France to fill a royal vacancy in Spain, Philippe V, grandson of Louis XIV of France, is out of sorts, morose, and well, pretty much off his nut. He is, of course, not the first head of state to have mood swings the size of a small third-world-country, but he may have been the first one to be on the receiving end of music therapy.
The time is 1737 in Spain, and the King has been up all night talking to the only sentient being he appears to trust, his goldfish Diego. His wife Isabella (Melody Grove) has assigned herself to be his advocate. She is pretty much alone in this department. The Council’s messenger, Don Sebastien De La Cuadra (Edward Peel) is intent on removing the King with the assistance of the Royal doctor, Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya). Just because the King is paranoid does not mean folks are not out to get him.
The Queen is on a personal mission to save her husband, who she loves but by whom she does not fee loved. Perhaps a return to mental health will change that? While on an unexplained junket in London, the Queen attends the opera and sees a performance by Farinelli, a castrato. So moved is she that she stumbles backstage, shaking, and begs for Farinelli to accompany her home to Spain. He does – although we are not privy to the final negotiations (odd). Perhaps because Isabella was shaken to her core she instinctively knew or hoped that Farinelli could bypass Philippe’s short circuited synapses.
It is worth mentioning here that the King listens to one Farinelli sing and speaks to another. In a remarkably strange bit of direction, Farinelli is played by two men. The actor Sam Crane handles all the text and the singing is handled by countertenor Iestyn Davies. The two are dressed identically, and when Farinelli sings, Crane is given the unenviable task of shadowing the singer.
When the King hears Farinelli (Davies) for the first time, it is as if someone has entered his dream. The two enter a verbal pas de deux, with Farinelli (Crane) keeping up with the tennis-match quality of the conversation. Lobs and Aces. He not only keeps up, he takes a few serves. It is this conversation that opens the door to the king’s inner inner sanctum. For one thing, both men divine that their respective situations are not natural. Phillipe allows us how they were both robbed – when he was sent into a sort of exile to become a king in a different country. Farinelli when he was castrated. Both were betrayed by men they loved. – Phillipe by Louis XIV and Farinelli by his brother. Phillipe spit balls questions: Are you here to spy on me? No. Can you fuck women? Yes. YES? Oh this is interesting and not at all what the Queen had planned. As a matter of fact not much goes as the queen or anyone else in this administration has planned. Phillipe remains thoughtful and contrary; wistful and demanding; belligerent and contrite. When his council advises public appearances he chooses instead to retreat to a forest where he can hear the music of the spheres as introduced by Farinelli, and where the king can hear the spiders dismantling their webs.
His retreat does not last, because the world wants him back. His citizens need to see him, and the rest of Europe needs reassurance. He is propped up and sent out into the world with Farinelli promising to stay by his side – at least for a few more months.
For Phillipe Farinelli’s voice reminds him that ”It is possible to live in this world.” That Farinelli cannot actually live inside Phillipe’s head is unfortunate, because that is where Phillipe would like to have him. As it is he is alone in there and the Royal Cargo of his mind is not secured. Farinelli did not cure the King of madness – he kept away the other voices – for a time.
Neither is the text of this play. The only real blips of heartbeats are the performances of Rylance and Iestyn Davies. The rest of the cast is given little if anything to do. This play is more a series of incidences than a story unfolding. To be sure – the set and attention to design detail by Jonathan Fensom are things of beauty. In addition the use of period musical instruments and the skill of the musicians wrap us in a cocoon that sweeps us out of time and place.
Everything that could be done to bring this tale to life has been done. Author Claire Van Kampen could not ask for a better production. A great production of a play with little substance, however, does not a great play make. But for the performance of Rylance, who is as always remarkable, and Davies, who is a delicious surprise and deserving of the two final bows that Rylance engineers, Farinelli and The King remains a tedious bit of business.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"But watching Mr. Rylance’s Philippe experience Farinelli’s voice, we hear what he hears. And an actor and a singer temporarily turn a night at the theater in an anxious city into an Eden beyond worldly care, all the more precious for its evanescence.."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"There’s not much to Claire van Kampen’s simplistic script for “Farinelli and the King,” the play now running on Broadway after premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. But with a lead performance by Oscar and Tony winner Mark Rylance in full sail, it’s enough."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...