Whenever Mark Rylance comes to Broadway it is cause for celebration. The tradition is maintained with his appearance as Spanish King Philippe V in Claire van Kampen’s play, “Farinelli and the King,” a visiting production of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. There are other attributes as well in the work (van Kampen, also a composer, is Rylance’s wife), especially the glorious music of Handel sung by a superb countertenor.
When we enter the Belasco (the old-fashioned, exquisitely restored theater is perfect for this staging) we view a handsome two-tiered set representing the court of the king, with musicians seated above in the center, and some audience members seated on the two tiers on either side. (The production has been designed by Jonathan Fensom and directed with sophistication and insight by John Dove.) We are being visually transported into the early 18th century, when Philippe V was on the throne. In real life he was bonkers, with a condition that probably would now be diagnosed as bipolar, and Rylance cannily makes the most of the opportunity to show the king in his various moods.
There is another vital element. The play explores the possibility of using music as a calming influence, which has spanned the centuries to be used therapeutically today. Therein lies the extraordinary relationship depicted between Farinelli, played by Sam Crane, with Farinelli’s countertenor vocals being performed alongside Crane by Iestyn Davies. Farinelli, in real life born in Italy as Carlo Broschi, was castrated as a boy to preserve his high voice and he subsequently achieved fame giving concerts in Europe. Davies does a captivating job of imitating Farinelli’s voice, and his performance affords an audience supreme pleasure in companionship to Crane’s acting. The music of Handel gives the play bursts of beauty via the splendid voice of Davies and his accompanying musicians.
We first see Rylance when he is establishing the king’s quirks by holding a bowl with a goldfish inside. He is both fishing and chatting with the fish in this very funny scene. The playwright excels in giving Rylance lines that can be poetic, humorous and also indicative of his strange, wandering mind.
Rylance is expert at casting revealing glances, visually indicating vapidity, or exhibiting fascination with Farinelli, who lifts the king’s spirits with his singing and friendship. But at times the king lashes out vindictively, as in a scene with the Queen Isabella Farnese, played stalwartly by Melody Grove, as a woman who loves her husband but also has a gigantic task having to deal with his moods and upside down life.
A superb, colorfully costumed cast--Lorraine Ebdon-Price is UK costume coordinator and hair and wigs are by Campbell Young Associates--includes Huss Garbiya, Lucas Hall, Colin Hurley, Edward Peel and James Hall. The entire production is a visual and aural triumph, with Rylance reigning as the central attraction.
Before the play begins there is interaction with the audience as cast members pass up the aisles. On the night I attended my wife and I were charmed by a conversation with Margot White, who covers for Melody Grove as Queen Isabella. White then danced elegantly with one member of the audience before remounting the stage. No slight intended to the excellent Grove, but I hope White gets a chance to perform. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 18, 2017.