Farinelli and the King, Duke of York’s Theatre, review: ‘Lavish, but limited’

Mark Rylance (Philippe V) and Melody Grove (Isabella) in Farinelli and the King. Picture: Simon Anna

Mark Rylance (Philippe V) and Melody Grove (Isabella) in Farinelli and the King. Picture: Simon Annand - Credit: Archant

Claire van Kampen’s historical drama is a whimsical vehicle for its star Mark Rylance, says Marianka Swain.

Make opera, not war. So urges composer-turned-playwright Claire van Kampen’s featherweight historical star vehicle, elevated by husband Mark Rylance – in a tailored role showcasing his beguiling idiosyncrasies – and John Dove’s sumptuous production.

Rylance is 18th-century Philippe V of Spain, whose reign is threatened by rumblings of war, an abdication plot, and his descent into debilitating depression. But wife Isabella hopes celebrated castrato Farinelli might restore the king’s spirits and sanity.

Though inspired by real events, van Kampen’s whimsical piece offers a reductive view of music therapy as magic cure for bipolar Philippe. More interesting, though bluntly spelled out, is the parallel between the “unnaturally” created sovereign and singer (whose ambitious brother butchered his genitals). Trapped by the greatness thrust upon them, the pair escape their fishbowl – yes, there’s also a literal fishbowl – and return to nature.

The play’s fascination with oppositions – public and private, court and forest, power and helplessness, agony and ecstasy – makes a virtue of Farinelli’s dissociative portrayal, with Sam Crane the mournful man and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies his divine voice. Davies’ hypnotic arias communicate more effectively than words the soul-stirring power of music. Truly “art for all”, though that exhortation lands more ironically in the pricey West End than at the Globe.

Rylance’s mercurial monarch is at once petulant, threatening, listless and giddily impulsive, tormenting Melody Grove’s steadfast carer Isabella. However, there’s richer exploration of that dynamic up the road in The Father; here, it swerves into romantic melodrama. The intersection of medicine and faith is thinly sketched, as are most supporting characters, though Colin Hurley’s grumpy librettist amuses.

If not deeply illuminating, it is exquisitely candlelit, casting flickering shadows over Jonathan Frensom’s brocade frock coats and oppressive regal portraits. Lavish but limited.

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Rating: 3/5 stars