The regally gilded, candlelit set of Farinelli and the King, now on Broadway for a limited engagement, reads almost as a continuation of the Belasco Theatre’s opulent, elegant interior. It’s also apropos that Claire van Kampen’s new comedy-drama, which stars Mark Rylance as King Philippe V of Spain, comes to New York from Shakespeare’s Globe, as a number of its elements bear the Bard’s imprint. These include shifts between palatial and pastoral settings; breaking the fourth wall for a performance within the performance; broad comedy; and of course a story based on the real lives of bygone royal personages.
Well played all around, the production is blessed with the preternaturally naturalistic Rylance, whose severely manic-depressive and sometimes delusional King Philippe V of Spain is both brilliantly imagined and pulsatingly real.
Attempting to head off her sick husband’s enforced abdication, Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) sails to England to engage the era’s biggest opera star, the castrato Farinelli (a sensitive portrayal by Sam Crane), for a private command performance. After paying off producer John Rich (a boisterously entertaining Colin Hurley), she spirits the none-too-resistant singer back to Madrid.
There his angelic renditions of (mostly) Händel’s arias, here arranged by the playwright and accompanied by dexterous onstage musicians, indeed return the king to his right mind. But to Isabella’s dismay the process involves a jarring uprooting of the royal couple-plus-one and replanting in a secluded house in the woods, where under Farinelli’s guidance Philippe endeavors to literally channel the Music of the Spheres.
Though the King’s quest for ineffable heavenly beauty may be quixotic, we are uplifted, along with Philippe, by a series of arias, sung gloriously on Friday night by countertenor Iestyn Davies. (Davies alternates performances with James Hall and Eric Jurenas.) Van Kampen’s stagey idea of presenting a legendary artist as two separate figures, the person and the persona, is not new, but it’s especially effective in this story of a star whose beautiful voice resulted from a childhood mutilation in which he had no say. Grilling him on their first encounter, Philippe demands to know “Are you famous?” “No,” replies the singer. “Farinelli is famous.”
Similarly bifurcated, the play moves from a tightly woven first act to a looser second. Relocated to an Arden-like woods, the company adopts the audience as open-air concertgoers, and then the story flips ahead in time. But I did not find this troublesome. Rather, it called to mind Shakespeare’s romances, with their sylvan settings and magical-mythical presences.
On both screen and stage Rylance constructs his portrayals with astounding subtlety and an inwardness that makes a
character so utterly of-itself that it encompasses us fully and sweeps us along inexorably. Here, director John Dove guides the cast with a steady hand such that the more broadly comical and stylized characters – Hurley’s producer, and Edward Peel’s Don Sebastian De La Cuadra, the King’s chief minister – fit in with remarkable ease.
Rylance’s own unalloyed mastery may be part of the reason; another is surely Grove’s thoroughly convincing portrayal of Isabella as the story’s moral center and a woman who strides comfortably with one foot in realism and the other in elevated stagecraft.
Enchanting and funny, Farinelli and the King is a wonderful opportunity to see one of our century’s finest actors in a role custom-crafted for his talents. It runs through March 25, 2018. Tickets are available online, at the Belasco Theatre box office, and by calling 212-239-6200.