Farinelli & The King
by Claire van Kampen
Directed by John Dove
Musical director / harpsichord Robert Howarth
Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe
Sunday 22nd February 2015, 14.30
Mark Rylance as Phillipe V of Spain
Melody Grove as Isabella Farnese, Queen of Spain
Sam Crane as Farinelli, the castrato
Edward Peel as (Don Sebastian) De la Cuadra, chief minister
Huss Garbiya as Dr Jose Cervi
Colin Hurley as Metastasio, Farinelli’s agent / manager.
Iestyn Davies sings the castrato
Claire van Kampen is a noted composer, and here writes an original play about Farinelli, the most famed castrato of all. She employs some of Farinelli’s arias and has two celebrated counter tenors to sing the parts for Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane). This afternoon was Iesteyn Davies. William Purefoy does other performances.
Mark Rylance as King Philip V
The press interest is because Mark Rylance is back on the London stage, right in the middle of the TV run of Wolf Hall where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Rylance is married to Claire van Kampen, so we can assume he didn’t have to audition. Mark Rylance has been rightly acclaimed as the greatest stage actor of our times … see the reviews here of La Bête, Jerusalem, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Until now he was so well-known to theatregoers, but not to the general public. Wolf Hall, at this point between episodes 5 and 6 on TV, has changed that dramatically. My wife and I still argue over whether Jerusalem or La Bête is the best performance we’ve ever seen. In some ways, Mark Rylance shines even brighter when it’s not Shakespeare, because any Shakespeare performance is so burdened with inevitable comparisons. And this is a new play, and from my lower gallery seat I have never been this near to him – just two metres when he has his sudden attack of rage against his stage wife, Queen Isabella. Rylance is unique. His delivery is unique, and he’s a shapeshifter – physically different in every role I’ve seen him in.
When you have a five star performance in a five star production of a five star play with five star music, how can you write a review? And this play was all of those things. If you get one or two like this a year, the other few dozen we see are justified.
There is a conceptual twist. The Wanamaker Playhouse is normally dedicated to faithful candlelit productions of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays plus a few musical recitals. It strives for authenticity in recreating the indoor playhouses of the early 17th century. Here we have the first production of a new play for 2015 by a contemporary writer, albeit it set in the Spain of 1737. So it doesn’t have to be “authentic” but makes use of the setting and era so that it seems to be so. It fitted so well, I almost put it in the Jacobean category under STAGE here rather than MODERN.
The Queen, King Philip and De la Cuedra
The story is brief. Farinelli was a castrato, testicles removed at ten years old to retain the pitch and range of a boy with the vocal power of an adult. It was a common procedure, and the last of the castrati died in 1922. Farinelli was a star in the courts of 1730 and had a European tour schedule of Rolling Stones dimensions. The King of Spain, Philip V, was going mad, a common 18th century royal custom due to syphilis, inbreeding or natural propensity. Farnelli’s exquisite voice soothed then healed the king’s tortured mind, and Farinelli gave up his glittering career to sing for Philip V alone. While it is impossible to replicate the three octave range of Farinelli, a counter tenor gives us an idea of what they sounded like. He was introduced to Philip V by his Italian wife, Isabella Farnese. The name throws me as we have several bottles of Farnese Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in the cupboard, a current Sunday Times Wine Club favourite. And yes, it is named for the 16th century Italian dynasty from Rome who planted vineyards in Abruzzo. Isabella Farnese was Queen Consort and de facto ruler from 1714 till Philip’s death in 1746. The real Isabella Farnese was plumpish, double-chinned, and enjoyed hunting dressed as a man. In this play, she is extremely attractive. It works better, and anyway the portraits may be at the end of a long life, a quarter of a century after the events here. There is a lot of humor in the play, and nationality is a regular theme: Philip is King of Spain, but as a grandson of Louis XIV of France, he sees himself as French. Isabella is Italian. Farinelli was found in Vienna, after a successful performance in London … giving us the ever popular English jokes to go with the French, Italian and Spanish ones. I’m not going to spoil it by quoting any, and Rylance’s trademark hesitant timing in delivery is so much part of the fun.
In the Forest, against the backdrop: Isabella, Philip, Farinelli
Anyway, Philip V decides to go rustic and build a home in the forest so as to study the harmony of the spheres, taking Isabella and Farinelli with him, so that Farinelli can sing to the stars. Some castrati could achieve erections (though one wonders what good it did them in terms of sensation) and were popular with the ladies as there was no fear of pregnancy. Isabella (in this play) falls for Farinelli. We wondered about this. Did it really happen? No matter. It came as a surprise. Anyway, at least the possible punishment for chatting up the king’s wife had already happened to him.
Farinelli & The Queen (Sam Cave & Melody Grove)
It all ends quite abruptly, with Farinelli’s manager, Metastasio, coming on stage to explain what happened to everyone afterwards, rather as cinema credits do. We have a final scene where an ageing Farinelli agrees to sing one final aria in payment to his tailor, Vincentio (also played by Mark Rylance).
King Philip with goldfish
The play opens with the king, in bed, mad as a hatter, fishing for goldfish. It does recycle the Ani di Franco song lyric (Little Plastic Castles) – for a goldfish the view at the end of each circuit is a “surprise every time.” The lines are excellent, never more so when the king puzzles over, then berates three clocks for showing different times. The twists and turns of his tortured mind are rendered so well, and this is intrinsic script as well as performance. We can see that the chief minister, De la Cuedra, wants him sectioned (in modern terms) and replaced by his son by his first wife … Isabella is the second wife. Ah! Good! A tiny negative gives me something to say. The programme calls him “De la Cuedra” most characters call him “Don Sebastian.” I have improved on the programme by putting his name in full above. In the scene where he’s about to be committed, King Philip suddenly turns quietly lucid. No plot spoilers. There are moments of sudden rage … twisting Isabella’s arm, going to strike her, biting her lip in a kiss until blood flows.
A particularly marvellous section of the play is in Act Two. They’re in the forest, which unusually for the Wanamaker Playhouse involves pulling a painted backdrop of a forest in 18th century style across the set. We note that Mark Rylance does his own scene shifting here, though appropriately, as moving to the forest is the king’s idea. The king suddenly notices ‘all these people’ (i.e., us, the audience) who have come to watch, and points out individuals. He then persuades Farinelli to sing for us, and goes into the pit to watch. As good an audience interaction piece as I have seen.
Isabella Farnese, Queen of Spain (Melody Grove)
The counter-tenor issue is done theatrically and without fuss. Sam Cave acts the part of Farinelli, and is first heard singing out of our view (well, I was at the side – maybe in view at the front). Then whenever Farinelli sings, Iestyn Davies walks on, in identical costume, stands near him, and sings for him. They mirror positions and body movements, though Sam Cave never pretends to sing, nor uses singer gestures. Farinelli has at least three costumes and they are all mirrored. It works perfectly, the singing is ethereal and majestic, even if counter-tenor not castrato. You can only ask so much of a performer. We did wonder, as Iestyn Davies’s gestures and stage movements are so good, why they didn’t simply get him to do the spoken voice acting too, but operatic style is so different to naturalistic stage style that it might have jarred and been too much to ask of the singer. They use two singers over the run. People this good have heavy concert commitments, so that may be the reason. Anyway, the shadowing works.
Farinelli sings …
The script is unashamed modern English … ‘Don’t fuck it up!’ King Philip says to his advisors. The play is short – 45 minutes Act I, 60 minutes Act 2, so for the first time I leave without Wanamaker backache. It seemed wonderfully short and pithy after the three and a half hour marathon at Man and Superman the night before, but of course the script, the acting by all of the cast (not just Rylance) and the music breaking it up means time flies by in a magical theatre, hosting a new play fully worthy of its setting.
Funny, at the National Theatre the night before they a had a sign stating that NT programmes are the best in London. No way. As ever, that honour goes to the Globe / Wanamaker.
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010