Mark Rylance may be playing Philippe, the ‘mad’ king of 18th century Spain, but he very much does his Mark Rylance thing. Fortunately that thing is so watchable, it could be prescribed as medicine for the melancholic itself… There’s the perfectly timed wit smuggled in under shuffling, muttering, chuckling; caustic humour softened by naïf innocence, as he stand like a little lost boy in oversized dressing gown and cap; a seam of darkness – from petulance to real cruelty – cracking the harmless-fool surface. Rylance offers a glimpse into a deep well of emotion, conveyed simply by standing very still, listening to music.
For in this West End transfer of Claire van Kampen’s debut play, Rylance’s King Phillipe V is apprently ‘cured’ of mental illness only by the singing of Farinelli (Sam Crane), the famous castrato. Yep, his balls were sliced off when he was ten by his brother Riccardo (“Rick the Knife”, Rylance quips). He’s brought over to Spain by a clever doctor and Philippe’s enterprising wife, Queen Isabella, although the King sounds like a trying patient – he really did insist that Farinelli became nocturnal, singing arias to him throughout the night to soothe his agitated mind.
Still, Farinelli stayed with him for 26 years. Why? In Van Kampen’s telling, it’s for more than a fat paycheck: he isn’t entirely free from issues himself. When the King comes up with a batty “experiment” – that Farinelli and Isabella should join him in living in “a hole in the forest,” to better be able to hear the music of the spheres – the downsizing leads Farinelli to his own cure too.
Van Kampen’s play is beautifully assured, and constructed with almost as much precision as the natty green and gold wooden set (which – lit by actual candles, hooray – mimics the play’s original setting in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). Philippe and Farinelli turn out to have more in common than they realise: both thrust into a limelight they never sought by their families, both floundering and nervous under that pressure; both craving a quieter, simpler life.
As well mirroring each other, they’re both internally conflicted, doubled and troubled. The king was bipolar, or so the programme notes diagnose with a surprising modern medical certainty (ah, hindsight!) Farinelli, meanwhile, prefers to be called by his real name, Carlo, and considers the famous stage-figure of “Farinelli” to be an altogether different person. This also makes Van Kampen’s practical stage device – a countertenor in matching clothes who comes on to perform the songs – seem entirely justified. Three different singers alternate this role; Iestyn Davies sets a high bar the night I watch with his soaring renditions of Handel.
Into the woods, then, they go. But while the King becomes needy towards Farinelli’s miracle musical cure, there are other intimate airs being sung, and the three form a love triangle of sorts – albeit an isosceles, one where the King always comes out on top. The much put-upon, yet resilient Queen – played with a sweet blend of practical pluck and tremulous heartache by Melody Grove – sees little reward for her saintly patience.
Even if the well-flagged themes and well-made structure can flicker just a candle-gutter towards the schematic, Farinelli and the King is still an extremely impressive first play. Van Kampen has long been director of music at the Globe (and Rylance is her husband), so it’s safe to assume all those years backstage and in the stalls must have rubbed off.
She writes with a very modern tone for a historical story, including anachronistically rude phrasing: “Don’t fuck it up!” And the cast don’t, delivering potentially jarring expletives with irrestible relish. Under John Dove’s direction, the story is allowed to spread its wings with softly surreal scenes of madness; it’s a hoot, thankfully never tipping you into ‘Is it ok to laugh at mental illness?’ anxiety. Rylance’s performance is too warm to worry about that; moments when he talks to a goldfish or converses with clocks are instead a sheer delight. All in all, the show rarely hits a bum note, even if it isn’t quite a miracle cure.