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BWW Review: FARINELLI AND THE KING, Duke of York's Theatre, September 29 2015


Following a sold-out run at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe earlier this year, Claire van Kampen's first play, Farinelli and the King, has transferred to the Duke of York's for a limited run this autumn. Starring Mark Rylance as King Philippe V of Spain, it tells the story of Farinelli, an exquisite castrato singer who was brought to Spain to sing for the King and the production focuses on the special relationship that formed between the two.

Set in 18th-century Spain, Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) travels to London where she attends the opera. She is blown away by Farinelli and decides that he may be the very thing she needs to and bring her husband out of his 'mad' state. It is well known that Farinelli agreed to go with the Queen and left the stage and his adoring fans to perform for a much smaller audience in the Spanish court, where he stayed for over 20 years before retiring to Bologna where he lives until his death.

The star of the production is undoubtedly Rylance whose performance is both hilarious and heart-wrenching in equal measure. We see him battle with his demons as he tries to break free of the hold depression has over him - he is childlike and innocent at times while at other moments, he seems dangerous as he suddenly becomes angry and lashes out as those close to him, in particular, his wife. As the play continues into the second act we see his mental state start to decline again at the thought of Farinelli leaving him as he faces the inevitable return to the palace in Madrid. The two bond over the power and fame that has been thrust upon them from a very young age - Philippe after the death of King Charles II of Spain, found himself named as his successor aged just 16 and Farinelli following his castration at the hands of his brother aged 10.

Rylance is exquisite in this role and it's hard to imagine another in his place. Singer Iestyn Davies and actor Sam Crane are glorious in their joint role as Farinelli, with strong performance also from Grove as the empathetic Queen and Edward Peel as the King's advisor De la Cuadra. The arias sung by Davies are hauntingly beautiful and the theatre is silenced in awe of his spectacular talent.

The stage has been set up as a replica of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and is lit only by the candles hanging above the stage from candelabra and sconces on the side of the stage, thanks to designer Jonathan Fensom. Director John Dove manages to seamlessly blend Davies and Crane into one Farinelli as Crane remains silent while Davies takes centre stage for the musical interludes which include arias by Handel, Hasse and Porpora. The pacing is fairly steady throughout and often dramatic scenes are interspersed with moments of comedy gold. This is one production I definitely plan on seeing again.

Photo Credit; Alastair Muir

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