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The Theatreguide.London Review

Farinelli And The King
Duke of York's Theatre  Autumn 2015

Allow me a bit of reminiscence. One of the high points in a lifetime of theatregoing was a moment in the original National Theatre production of Amadeus, when Paul Scofield as Salieri first heard Mozart's music, and the actor's face ran through a range of emotions – wonder, envy, fear, anger, bliss – in a matter of seconds.

In Claire van Kampen's play-with-music (seen briefly earlier this year at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), the mad eighteenth century Spanish King Philip V hears the castrato Farinelli sing for the first time and actor Mark Rylance, without seeming to move a muscle, makes us see sanity returning to the king's eyes. 

I don't know if I came late to an appreciation of Mark Rylance or he came late to the full flower of his talent. His early performances (including two Hamlets) did not impress me, though there were a couple of enjoyable light comic roles. 

But it wasn't until Jerusalem in 2009 that I saw an actor to be reckoned with, and his work since then has shown him to be not just a performer of power and magnetism, but of heart-stopping subtlety and sensitivity.

It is historically true that the operatic superstar Farinelli gave up public performances at the height of his career to become personal singer to the King of Spain, and that this seemed to control the King's severe bipolar swings. 

Claire van Kampen imagines personalities for the two men, along with the Queen and a few secondary figures, and the relationships that might have developed among them. 

In Mark Rylance's hands Philip is a man cursed not only with wild mood swings but with a full awareness of where he is on the pendulum at any moment and which direction he is moving toward. Rylance shows us the intelligence present in even the maddest moments and the pain of knowing what awaits in even the happiest.

It is as rich and nuanced a characterisation as you are likely ever to see, and I expect moments in it to remain in my memory as strongly as those of Scofield four decades ago. 

Sam Crane gives Farinelli the depth and dignity of one who has led his life as a pampered star and now finds a higher and more satisfying role, while Melody Grove captures the unhappiness of a queen dedicated to her husband while knowing that, mad or sane, he will never love her as much as she does him. (The absolutely weakest part of van Kampen's script suggests the temptation toward a romance between Farinelli and the Queen, and is best ignored.) 

There is, inevitably, a lot of music in the play, and the playwright and director John Dove take the audacious and wholly effective gamble of providing Sam Crane's Farinelli with what amount to stunt doubles, a trio of countertenors who take turns stepping into Crane's place onstage when the character is called upon to sing. 

This not only avoids the problem of finding an actor who sings or singer who acts, but the very artificiality of the device creates an open theatricality that underlines the beauty and the mystical healing power of the music.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Farinelli And The King  - Duke of York's Theatre 2015  
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