Farinelli And The King – The Healing Power of Art

All hail the King! Mark Rylance, arguably the best actor in theater today, is once again lighting up the Broadway stage aided and abetted by a skilled company from Shakespeare’s Globe. Farinelli And The King, based on and embroidering the interaction of real persons, marks the auspicious play writing debut of Rylance’s wife, Claire Van Kampen – lecturer, performer, composer, arranger. It’s engaging, surprising, thoughtful, and humorous.

King Philippe V, the grandson of King Louis XIV who built Versailles, was believed to have what we now conjecture to have been bipolar disorder. Despite overt signs of madness, mood swings, and incapacitation, he managed, without being assassinated or deposed, to sit on the Spanish throne twice, before and after a brief reign by eldest son, Louis, who died of smallpox. Rather amazing. The King often let his second wife, Isabella Farnese, speak for him. Van Kampen depicts her as devoted.

Sam Crane, Melody Grove, Huss Garbiya, Edward Peel, Mark Rylance

Philippe (Mark Rylance) is wheeled in on a chaise wearing wonderfully elaborate nightclothes. His palm holds a small goldfish bowl, the other hand a fishing rod with its hook in the water. “I see you are ignoring my bait,” he conversationally says to a fish who later identifies himself as Alphonso. We hear an amusing, one sided conversation. The king doesn’t know where he is or whether it’s day or night. When Isabella (Melody Grove whose Queen palpably believes in Philippe) urges him to bed, he thinks she’s invading his dream. Stage business including use of the bowl, candles (fire!) and a handkerchief is telling.  Sense of both the man and his marriage is established.

Royal Minister, Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (the splendid Edward Peel), tries in vain to get his sovereign to attend a Council Meeting. Philippe is sure he’s being plotted against (not entirely untrue), accuses Isabella of a child-bearing affair (unlikely), and speaks to inanimate objects. His pixilation is more fun if one doesn’t expect him to run a country. Rylance stops, starts, reverses, and enchants, propelled by his character’s darting attention span.

Huss Garbiya, Mark Rylance, Melody Grove

Every time De La Cuadra suggests abdication, the Queen adamantly defends her husband, minimizing his illness. It’s suggested she take a trip so the court might perhaps pursue stronger treatment – though Dr. Cervi (Huss Garbiya) appears sympathetic. (It was, I think, too early for lobotomy.)

In London, Isabella is transported during a concert by Farinelli, the most famous castrato of his time. (The dual role is played by actor Sam Crane who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his facial expression as his doppelganger sings, but is otherwise excellent, and countertenor, Iestyn Davies, who, does, in fact, transport.) She resolves, by offering funds to struggling impresario John Rich (a thoroughly credible Colin Hurley) that Farinelli accompany her to Spain as a healing gift to the King. Though others disdained her theory, the real Dr. Cervi put credence in music therapy.

In our own time, Dr. Oliver Sachs was one of the most fervent proponents that “music occupies more areas of our brain than language does… It can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia…”

Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies

Farinelli was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, castrated at ten in order to support his family and promote the musical compositions of his brother. The vocalist had a range from the A below middle C to the D two octaves above middle C. It’s said control was extraordinary, intonation ethereal; that he was intelligent and modest.

A conversation with the parenthetically lucid Philippe is revealing and empathetic. “We’re both made kings against our will.” Like many conspicuously famous people, both these men think of their public selves as separate beings.

The artist was in fact invited to Spain by Isabella, treated beautifully, and named chamber musician to the King. History notes he stayed in the country through the reign of the next appreciative, and healthy ruler, while the Queen, finding herself exiled, turned on him for not absenting himself. Farinelli retired to Bologna and never sang in public again.

Sam Crane

In Van Kampen’s version of the story, the castrato develops an unusually close relationship with his patron. His singing helps generate long periods of “normalcy” provoking a radical, charmingly portrayed change in living circumstances, and decidedly poetic turn. Philippe, Isabella, and Farnielli hear the stars sing.

The completely unexpected beginning of Act II eschews its fourth wall. Usually irritating rather than enhancing, the device is made to work to the play’s advantage. Watching Philippe take in Farinelli’s music and/or observe audience reaction is like hitching a ride on exaltation.

The play’s ending reflects but doesn’t depict reality. Here, however, it makes perfect dramatic sense. An extraordinary journey has been shared.

Mark Rylance is masterful. His habitation of another’s life affects every expression and gesture. Posture and walk follow suit. The tenor of his voice changes as does its impeccably tailored delivery. Here there are things muttered under breath, phrases that erupt, wistful imaginings, paranoia, pronouncements, tenderness and revelations. This King seems benign, perpetually frustrating, but often endearing, much less self destructive than its role model. Another immutable performance.

Mark Rylance

Director John Dove gives us a voyeur experience. Every character has presence. Flow is organic. Use of the stage from below its floor to above its sightline is highly imaginative. Moments of great humor appear with a wink. Watch for small exchanges between the two Farinellis. Utilizing two figures to play the castrato works both metaphorically and literally. Integration of music is seamless.

Designer Jonathan Fensom has created a royal, black and gold, pillared habitation with heavy, red draping. Furniture is aptly occasional.  That the ostensibly hand painted ceiling angles past an ornate proscenium and the stage is filled with dozens and dozens of actually burning candles conjures time and place. A forest is manifest as it might have been in staging of the time with an elaborately painted scrim and separately cut out tree parts. Costumes are beautifully detailed and aesthetically pleasing.

Hair and Wigs by Campbell Young Associates are perfection.

Lighting Designer Paul Russell is deferential to onstage candles fostering innumerable subtleties.

Music Arrangements are adroitly crafted by Claire Van Kampen.

Note to Van Kampen: Use phrase Ric, the Knife (instead of Mack the Knife) stuck out inappropriately.

If I were you, I wouldn’t sit on the stage (one can) where proximity might seem special but angles will impede.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Sam Crane, Mark Rylance

Shakespeare’s Globe production of
Farinelli And The King by Claire Van Kampen
Directed by John Dove
Belasco Theatre   
111 West 44th Street
Through March 25, 2018

About Alix Cohen (939 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.