In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the Broadway transfer of Farinelli and the King. Here’s an excerpt.
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How good must a show be to make it worth seeing? I found myself asking this question on the way home from “Farinelli and the King,” the new play by Claire van Kampen that has brought Mark Rylance back to Broadway. On paper, “Farinelli” is scarcely more than a tissue-thin vehicle for Mr. Rylance, whose star-turn performance is a quirky catalogue of his usual stage tricks. By all rights it ought not to work at all—yet “Farinelli” still contrives to cast an odd spell on the viewer, and its best moments have a delicate beauty that will stay with you.
Part of what makes “Farinelli” so memorable is its subject matter. It’s a history play about one of the most mysterious relationships in the history of classical music, that between Spain’s King Philip V (referred to in the play as “Philippe” and played by Mr. Rylance), who suffered from what is widely thought to have been an incapacitating case of manic depression, and Farinelli, the legendary 18th century Italian castrato, whose exquisite singing eased the king’s suffering. In 1737, the 32-year-old Farinelli abandoned his operatic career to become Philippe’s court musician, and never sang in public again. Not at all surprisingly, his improbable life has already been portrayed in a biopic and several operas. Now comes Ms. van Kampen, Mr. Rylance’s wife and the longtime house composer at Shakespeare’s Globe, who had never before written a play but became so fascinated by Farinelli that she decided to take a fresh crack at putting him on stage….
As has been widely noted, “Farinelli and the King” bears a decided family resemblance to Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” (with a bit of “The King’s Speech” stirred in to sweeten the pot). This close resemblance underlines the chief weakness of Ms. van Kampen’s play, which is that none of her characters ever says anything interesting or memorable….
This brings us to Mr. Rylance, who is at his best when playing strongly defined characters, as he does in “Bridge of Spies” and “Dunkirk.” In the absence of firm authorial guidance, his acting is apt to dissolve into a cloud of twee mannerisms, which is what happens here….
What, then, makes “Farinelli and the King” worth the price of the ticket? The production, for openers. Designed by Jonathan Fensom, it is closely similar in approach to the Elizabethan-style stagings of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” that Mr. Rylance and the Globe brought to Broadway in 2013, only fancier. The proscenium stage of the Belasco Theatre is lit with candles and fitted out with boxes, and a seven-piece period-instruments band accompanies Farinelli in eight lovely Handel arias that are not unlike the kind of thing the real-life Farinelli might have sung. Moreover, Ms. van Kampen and John Dove, the director, have had the ingenious idea of using two performers, Sam Crane and Iestyn Davies, the British countertenor, to play Farinelli. Each time Mr. Crane opens his mouth to sing, Mr. Davies appears onstage as if by magic, filling the air with sounds of unearthly beauty….
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Read the whole thing here.
Excerpts from Farinelli and the King, featuring Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies: