FARINELLI AND THE KING
January 15, 2018
In Broadway’s new musically adorned drama “Farinelli And The King” by Claire Van Kampen, wife of the show’s star Mark Rylance, the candlelit wood set crowned by onstage Baroque musicians seated in the gallery, exudes an 18th century serenity.
Against that calm exterior, Mark Rylance couples nonchalance to resignation in his portrayal of the psychically disturbed King Philippe V. Indifferent to his ascension to the throne, Philippe (a direct descendant of King Louis XIV -- the king who wielded culture like a political weapon, indulges in daydreams.
Aides and military attaches, in particular Dr. Jose Crvi (Huss Garbiya) and Don Sebastian De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) fear Phiippe cannot manage the affairs of the country -- but that’s far from the case. A razor sharp mind and memory is still capable of producing astute orders required to guide a country caught in turmoil. But the king’s innate desire to rule Spain has withered.
Rylance, one of the most skilled and intuitive actors alive, embraces the rather thin outline of King Philippe V investing his character with an intellectual curiosity poised amidst a myriad of conflicting emotions. A child-like inquisitiveness and sly sense of humor humanizes this ingenuous monarch.
Dressed in a white sleeping gown, pole dangled over a goldfish bowl, the distracted king chats philosophically with his fish as one might in the presence of a therapist. Like Hamlet, one is not certain if this is an “act” or symptom. Regardless, the melancholy undermines Philippe’s state of mind.
A questioning tone soaked in resignation and wistfulness, captures Rylance's remoteness. Clearly he harbors a vivid imagination. Philippe wonders about the universe, the beauty of nature, the greatness of all forms of life. More poet than a monarch, Philippe longs for something more to feed his troubled soul.
Time consuming meetings and papers detailing the state of Spain’s affairs leave Philippe flailing for a reason to live. It’s all senseless. Far from a warmonger, he’s an artist.
Intent on discovering a remedy for Philippe’s debilitating melancholia, his highly cultured wife, the molten voiced Melody Grove (Isabella Farnese) is fabulously dressed by set and costume designer Jonathan Fensom. Undeterred in her mission, Isabella finds an antidote in Europe.
A lover of the arts herself, she travels to the grand concert halls of Vienna and London where she is dumbstruck by Europes exploding art scene and the angelic voice of the internationally celebrated castrato Farinelli. Isabella implores Farinelli to come to the court and sing for the king. Money is no obstacle, but by accepting this invitation, Farinelli cannot accept other gigs.
Isabella’s hunch that Farinelli’s heavenly voice will soothe Philippe’s fevered mind comes true, but she doesn’t anticipate the bond that forms between two men who were plunged into their roles without their consent. Philippe ascended to the throne as a young man and Farinelli was castrated in order to preserve his unearthly soprano.
Director John Dove double casts Farinelli’s role with an actor Sam Crane and Mr. Davies. This makes sense because to start, it takes an enormous amount of energy to sing let along divide focus between acting and singing. No doubt, the unamplified music was one of the great treasures of this play. Arias from Handles’ Baroque operas floated over the audience perfuming the air with an audible harmony and calm. However, the decision by Dove to have the identically dressed actor face away from the singer while remaining on stage, looked awkward.
Over time, Philippe does improve to the surprise of the men who thought to depose him, but soon Philippe insists on leaving the court for a house in the woods.
Here Philippe communes with nature, indulging in organic gardening, championing conservation initiatives and bathing in a simple life. At night he gazes at the sky and discusses the harmony of the planets, the golden mean and celestial balance.
By the end, the dramatic through-line peters out, but the music floats the audience out the doors.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis