Even before Farinelli and the King, starring Mark Rylance, opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, I was chomping at the bit in anticipation of seeing the ever brilliant Rylance unleash his incandescent magic once again. Winner of three well-deserved Tony’s, Boeing-Boeing (2008), Jerusalem (2011), and Twelfth Night (2014), an Oscar for best supporting actor in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), not to mention a number of Olivier awards, was enough to have me drooling.
Unfortunately, like the fate that afflicted Humpty Dumpty, a similar scenario seemed to have befallen ‘King’ Rylance in this production. Neither the diverse cast, try as they did, nor the historically based play, all too sparsely written by Rylance’s wife Claire van Kampen – were able to rescue Rylance from his surprisingly wobbly performance as Spain’s unstable Phillipe V (1683-1746).
Rylance, in real life the son of a gestalt therapist, did pull out every idiosyncratic acting trick in his by now familiar repertoire from his quirky timing, verbal and physical hesitations and slyly audience-delivered asides. Unfortunately the play, which gave the audience little to take home other than seeing The Great Man do his stuff, which admittedly for most was probably enough, did him no favors.
Sadly, what could have been an extremely successful husband and wife paring fell disappointingly short.
The story, as fashioned by Kampen, something of a ménage de trios, centers around the King who is given to sudden fits of manic depression and bouts of severe melancholia. His doting Queen, Isabella Farnese is nicely underplayed by Melanie Grove. and Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), better known as Farinelli, the Italian Castrato (castrated at the age of ten) who became a sensation in opera houses and concert halls of 18th Century Europe only to give up his career at the height of his fame to sing privately for the king.
Below: L to R: Sam Crane, Melody Grove, Lucas Hall, Huss Garbiya, Edward Peel and Mark Rylance
As history tells us Phillipe would lay in bed in his own excrement, refuse to dress, bite himself, howl into the night, stare out of windows, talk to himself, and play with clocks, all of which in this play has the king’s chief minister Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (an annoying over-the-top Edward Peel) and his royal physician Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya) questioning the king’s sanity. They even talk about Phillipe’s possible abdication. To establish the king’s bizarre behavior, the play opens with Rylance rod in hand, fishing from a goldfish bowl as he exclaims to the fish “How much happier you are than I.”
As the story unfolds, and throughout the play, we see that there is only thing that appears to sooth Phillipe, to give him the peace of mind he so craves, and perhaps even allow him to keep his crown. The king, his wife and Farinelli would escape the royal residence and his court fleeing to a forest retreat where the ethereal voice of Farinelli, it is said, would sing eight or nine arias every evening, accompanied by a trio of musicians.
Left: Sam Crane, Mark Rylance
Other than Jonathan Fenson’s masterful production design, John Dove’s wise and perfect choice of using period instruments, with no amplification, hanging candelabras, candle light instead of electricity, and authentic period costumes, all of which resurrect the Eighteenth Century, the tail wagging conceit of the production—is the casting of three separate Farinelli’s.
One Farinelli, the wonderfully sympathetic and highly believable Sam Crane, who inhabits the play’s emotionally finest moments, handles all of the Farinelli acting moments while countertenors Jestyn Davies and James Hall (on alternate days) do all of the singing of Handel’s baroque arias on alternate days. The night I attended the play, Crane and Davies, both costumed and wigged exactly alike, stood side by side, one shadowing the other. A surprising La La Land moment came—the only bit of magic in the play—when Davies, while leaving Crane earthbound during the singing of an aria, suddenly soars into the stars.
Right: (L to R): Huss Garbiya, Mark Rylance and Melody Grove in ‘Farinelli and the King’
The mini-highlight of the evening, certainly the most emotional moment in the play, came as a complete surprise—as nothing in the play gives hint to this—with an admission of love between the queen and Farinelli. As far as I know, this love stuff might have been a fictitious moment. However, it did open up a whole new can of worms and triggered, certainly in myself, some much needed heart fluttering. Unfortunately this hated moment came too late in the play to add up to anything, other than a throwaway teaser. In a certain sense, the same could be said about the play itself.
By Edward Rubin, Contributing Editor
Farinelli and the King
Ending: March 25, 2018
Theater: Belasco Theatre
Theater Address: 111 West 44th Street
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min
Playwright: Claire van Kampen
Director: John Dove
Musical Arranger: Claire Van Kampen
Cast: Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies, Huss Garbiya, Melody Grove, James Hall, Lucas Hall, Colin Hurley, Edward Peel, Mark Rylance, Peter Bradbury, Eric Jurenas, Margot White.
Technical: Set: Jonathan Fensom; Lighting: Paul Russell; Hair and Wig Design: Campbell Young Assoc; Stage Manager: James Latus