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Two Views of Mark Rylance in "Farinelli and the King"
by Edward Rubin
by Lucy Komisar


Ed Rubin

Mark Rylance Returns to Broadway with "Farinelli And The King"

"Farinelli and the King"
The Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street

Through March 25, 2018
Directed by John Dove, written by Claire van Kampen

Run time: 2.5 hours
Tickets at http://farinelliandthekingbroadway.com/tickets.php or 212-239-6200

Sam Crane in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "Farinelli and the King." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Even before Farinelli and the King, starring Mark Rylance, opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, I was chomping at the bit in anticipation of seeing the ever brilliant Rylance unleash his incandescent magic once again. Rylance, winner of three well-deserved Tony's, Boeing-Boeing (2008), Jerusalem (2011), and Twelfth Night (2014), an Oscar for best supporting actor in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2015), not to mention a number of Olivier awards, was enough to have me drooling.  
Unfortunately, like the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, the same fate seems to have befallen Rylance in this production. Like all the king's horses and all the king's men, neither could the diverse cast, try as they may, rescue Rylance from his surprisingly wobbly performance as Spain's unstable Phillipe V (1683-1746).

Perhaps the fault could be partially blamed on Rylance real-life queen, his wife Claire van Kampen, who was responsible for the historically-based, but all too sparsely written play.

Mark Rylance as King Phillippe V in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "Farinelli and the King." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rylance, in real life the son of a gestalt therapist, did pull out every idiosyncratic acting trick in his by-now familiar repertoire from his quirky timing, verbal and physical hesitations and slyly audience-delivered asides. Unfortunately the play, which gave the audience little to take home other than seeing The Great Man do his stuff (which admittedly for most was enough) did him no favors.

Sadly, what could have been an extremely successful husband and wife paring fell disappointingly short.  

The story, as thinly fashioned by Kampen, something of a ménage de trios, centers around the King who is given to sudden fits of manic depression and bouts of severe melancholia, his doting Queen, Isabella Farnese (nicely underplayed by Melanie Grove), and Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), better known as Farinelli, the Italian Castrato (castrated at the age of ten) who became a sensation in opera houses and concert halls of 18th century Europe. At the height of his fame, Farinelli gave up his celebrated career so to sing privately and exclusively for the king.
As history tells us, Phillipe would lay in bed in his own excrement, refuse to dress, bite himself, howl into the night, stare out of windows, talk to himself, and play with clocks. Van Kampen has the king's chief minister Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (an annoying over the top Edward Peel) and his royal physician Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya) questioning the king's sanity and even openly talk about the possibility of Phillipe's abdication.

To establish the king's bizarre behavior, the play opens with Rylance rod in hand fishing from a goldfish bowl as he exclaims to the fish "How much happier you are than I."

Iestyn Davies in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "Farinelli and the King." Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the story unfolds, we see the only thing that appears to sooth Phillipe, to give him the presence of mind he so craves – be it at his royal residence or at a forest retreat where the king, his wife and Farinelli go to escape the court and to contemplate the heavens is the ethereal voice of Farinelli. Accompanied by a trio of musicians, Farinelli would sing eight or nine arias every evening for the pleasure of the king.    
There are things to admire in the play. Jonathan Fenson's masterful production design, John Dove's wise and perfect choice of using period instruments, no amplification, hanging candelabras, candle lighting instead of electricity, and authentic period costumes, beautifully resurrect the 18th century. The tail wagging conceit of the production - is the casting of three separate Farinelli’s.
One Farinelli, the wonderfully sympathetic and highly believable Sam Crane, who inhabits the play's emotionally finest moments, handles all of the Farinelli's acting moments. Meanwhile, countertenors Jestyn Davies and James Hall (on alternate days) do all of the singing of Handel's baroque arias. The night I attended the play Crane and Davies, both costumed and wigged exactly alike, stood side by side, one shadowing the other. A surprising "La La Land" moment came – the only bit of magic in the play – when Davies, suddenly soared in the stars leaving Crane earthbound during the singing of one aria.   
The mini-highlight of the evening, certainly the most emotional scene in the play, came as a complete surprise as nothing in the play gives hint to it. This was an admission of love between the Farinelli and the queen.

(L-R) Huss Garbiya, Mark Rylance, and Melody Grove in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "Farinelli and the King." Photo by Joan Marcus.

As far as I know, this confession of love might have been a fictitious moment dreamed up by the author. However, it did open up a whole new can of spicy worms and triggered, certainly in myself, some much needed heart fluttering that the play failed to do before or after. Unfortunately this heated moment came too late in the play to add up to anything other than a throwaway teaser. In a certain sense, the same could be said about the play itself. 

Lucy Komisar

"Farinelli and the King" about "Crazy" Monarch is Subtle Political Commentary

"Farinelli and the King"
Written by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove.
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., NYC
212-239-6200; http://farinelliandthekingbroadway.com
Opened Dec 17,2017, closes March 25, 2018.

Singer Iestyn Davies as Farinelli, Mark Rylance as the king, Melody Grove as Queen Isabella. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This gorgeous fantasy by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove, is based on a real story, with the narrative setting art and sensitivity against the plotting of ambitious court politicians of the time. The candles on overhanging chandeliers suggest the whimsy that is a mirror of reality.

Philippe V (the brilliant Mark Rylance) is the feeble-minded 18th-century Spanish king who was the grandson of King Louis XIV of France. (It was the time of imperialism by Europe’s royals.) He talks to a goldfish and fishes in the bowl as in a dream.

When his Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove) lights a candle, he throws water from the bowl to put out the flame. And so goes the fish. He is outrageous, crazy, sometimes funny. Grove as Isabella is sympathetic and warm. Reality is cruder.

The black and gold wood wall design features a large painting of a rider on a horse. Maybe symbolic. The men of the court plot to remove him. They want him to abdicate. (Is that the 18th-century deep state?)

Iestyn Davies the singer and Sam Crane the actor as Farinelli. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Then reality trumps fantasy. Farinelli (Sam Crane as the actor and Iestyn Davies doubling as the countertenor in gold brocade coats circa 1738) arrive to sing to him. Farinelli is a castrato, and his ethereal voice enchants the king.

Suddenly Philippe becomes sharper! He seems cured of madness. He reforms the tax system! (Can we get him here?)

There is a discussion about the need to get support of the French, because there may be war with England. (Let him stay in the 18th century. We are still there!)

Then he turns into a nature fan and traipses off with his wife to the country. The set turns into a forest. It's an experiment. They notice the planets, an eclipse of the sun. Attention to cookery, including paella. Better than fighting the English!

Rylance, one of the greatest English stage actors, inhabits the character. To see him is thrilling.
Sometimes the play seems like chamber opera. We get a sense of the mood, invented but inspired. And Farinelli, castrated by his brother at age 10 so he could be a great singer, falls in love with Isabella. Heart and body are obviously separate.

Looking back, perhaps the madness was not in the king, but in his war-gaming members of court.

Visit Lucy’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com/

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