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BWW Review: Mark Rylance Returns To Broadway in Unamplified and Candlelit FARINELLI AND THE KING


Fans of trained actors filling Broadway houses with the richness of their unamplified voices (not to mention those who believe electric lights are overrated) have reason to rejoice. Shakespeare's Globe, the British theatre company that in 2014 arrived on Broadway with their productions of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III that replicated Elizabethan theatre technological, is back in town with a new play that is also witnessed solely by candlelight and graced with actors who project.

Farinelli and the King
Iestyn Davies, Mark Rylance, Huss Garbiya
and Melody Grove (Photo: Joan Marcus)

First-time playwright Claire van Kampen's Farinelli and the King takes its inspiration from the real-life story of the 18th Century castrato opera star with the stage name Farinelli and King Phillippe V of Spain.

As with the company's previous Broadway outing, the star attraction is three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance, playing the monarch who, at the play's outset, is thought to be going mad.

He first appears holding a goldfish bowl in one hand and a small fishing pole in the other, admonishing the water's inhabitant for "playing hard to catch."

Teetering between child-like fascination with all he encounters, sadness in recognition of his mental state and sudden bursts of anger and paranoia, the king might be diagnosed as bi-polar today. Rylance shows wonderful restraint in playing him with sympathetic tenderness, underplaying the idiosyncratic quirkiness that has inhabited most of his Broadway performances.

While the frustrated chief minister Don Sebastian (terrific Edward Peel) tries to figure out how to get the king to sign abdication papers, Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove) devises an early attempt at music therapy. She travels to London to hear the acclaimed Farinelli sing and negotiates a deal with theatre manager John Rich (Colin Hurley) to let the man regarded as having the world's most beautiful voice out of his contract in order to give private performances for her husband.

The two men bond over their mutual sense of loss. Farinelli was castrated at age ten by his composer brother who would then write beautiful music for him to perform. (To cover up the illegal act, it was said he had fallen from a horse.) Phillippe, a grandson of France's Louis XIV, was crowned Spain's king at age 17 as a political move, and has felt misplaced ever since.

Farinelli and the King
Iestyn Davies and Sam Crane
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

At first, Sam Crane plays Farinelli with the aloofness of a man who is uncomfortable in his own skin. The character speaks of himself and his on-stage persona as two different people, but instead of giving the audience an opportunity to see a singing actor transform himself from the introverted fellow to the masterful artist, countertenor Iestyn Davies, dressed identically as Crane, comes on stage to take over whenever Farinelli is called upon to sing an aria. (James Hall sings the role at some performances.)

While Davies' voice is impressive, he doesn't display any acting prowess, so with Crane stepping aside to allow his counterpart to take over during the character's emotional highs, the drama suffers considerably once the music takes over.

The concept is then compromised in the second act, when a plot twist has Farinelli singing from his own heart, though it's still Crane acting and Davies providing the singing.

With the script playing to Rylance's strengths, such as asides to the audience and jolts of anachronistic language played for laughs, the imbalance of power in the two leading roles keeps the piece from fulfilling its high potential.

It's nevertheless an enjoyable venture, with the sumptuousness of director John Dove's production helping to mask the flaws. The elegant visuals by designer Jonathan Fensom and costume coordinator Lorraine Ebdon-Price (accented by hair and wigs by Campbell Young Associates), are illuminated by lighting designer Paul Russell with candles placed at footlights and hanging from chandeliers. The playing area is surrounded by two levels of onstage seating for both audience members and music director Robert Howarth's ensemble of musicians playing van Kampen's arrangement on period instruments.

And what a treat to see the 110-year-old Belasco Theatre, with its gorgeous murals and stained glass ornamentation, uncluttered by technical equipment.

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