Farnelli and the King opens with a reclining Phillippe V, pushed onstage by courtier while he tries to catch a goldfish from its bowl with a rod and line. Mark Rylance, utterly at home as the Spanish king, mumbles quietly, every half-thought crossing his face. He knows he’s dreaming: “Who would fish out of a goldfish bowl except in a dream?”
There’s every fear in this opening scene that Rylance – capable of effortlessly charming 95% of any audience irrespective of character – could be on auto-pilot here. However, Claire van Kampen has written her husband this part with good reason: his uncanny powers are put to excellent didactic use, making the audience empathise with the depressed king at the beginning of the play, before the text turns on the king, and us, by association.
To cheer the king, absent too long from affairs of state, his unpopular queen Isabella (Melody Grove) recruits the Italian castrato singer Farinelli to lift his spirits. The man’s sweet, high voice rouses the king from slumber, and indeed, rouses his spirits. The king is horrified and fascinated at the story of Farinelli’s castration at ten years old, by his own brother: “That is too old, and also too young for such brutality”, and finds in the celebrated singer some of the sadness he finds in the role of king. But the king needs to hear the singer again and again, and sickens without his company, so Farinelli’s stay lengthens and the calm he brings gives new ideas to the king about a way for him to escape his duty.
These early scenes establish, sometimes quite mechanically, a ‘friendship across the privilege divide’ narrative reminiscent of Pizarro and Atahuallpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, or even Hamlet and Yorick, i.e. one that is made to look considerably more even and reasonable than it is, despite one party having all the power. Philippe says cheerfully to Farinelli: “Here’s a fine game. I ask you questions. If you answer correctly you don’t get your head cut off.” But because Rylance is so damned engaging, it’s only into the second half that the impact of the king’s whims and moods is fully clear, and it is Farinelli and the sidelined Queen whose relationship is foregrounded. The king’s depression is genuine, and Farinelli does bring him some peace, but there is no two-way street here. The obsession of the king with Farinelli’s genital mutilation, both pitying and playful, whilst still demanding the sound of that unnatural voice for his own pleasure becomes more and more uncomfortable.
That voice poses a considerable difficulty in the conception of the play – an incredible otherworldly voice, must be matched with a nervous young man emoting serious childhood trauma who can act opposite Rylance and pull back some of that audience sympathy in his direction. To separate the man from the voice might seem a disappointing last resort when staging other talented characters, but here countertenor Iestyn Davies’ appearance alongside Sam Crane when the character is required to sing fits exceptionally as an interpretation of a text. In their first meeting the king asks the singer if he is famous and he replies, “No. Farinelli is famous”. Decked in identical costume and mirroring each other’s movements, Sam Crane’s face fills with emotion as he watches his double sing with a voice with which he does not fully identify. It would be a loss to the production and the play to confine these two performances to a single performer.
Farnelli and the King is the first production I have seen in the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and my thoughts about the production and the theatre are a little difficult to extract from one another. But it seems to me that the virtue produced from the necessity of dividing Farinelli from the Castrato (as they are credited), is related to the Globe Theatre’s exploration of the concept of original practice. The thing that elevates companies which have a relationship with ‘original practice’ (and a relationship is all anyone can have with the notion) above curio status is the aestheticising of restraint, the moments of gold produced without professional lighting, in bulky costume, shouted to an audience three stories up, while a plane goes overhead. Inside, the raising and lowering of candelabras to change the size of an onstage room is better than any fade triggered by a ‘Go’ button to the same end. It’s the same thing that many students do when they demonstrate the beauty to be found in the right cardboard prop, when designers make one stage block do the work of two, and when anyone makes work on a shoestring, and on stage that shoestring becomes Odysseus’ bowstring.
The central performances from Crane, Grove and Rylance complicate the beauty of Davies’ singing, elevating an admittedly underpowered text to a thoroughly engaging evening. Although a chamber piece in many aspects, Farinelli and the King makes us complicit in the business of kings, and their cure.