Even the surliest of theatergoers will offer a royal welcome to three-time Tony Award winner (and recent Oscar winner) Mark Rylance, who empties his entire bag of acting tricks throughout Farinelli and the King, an entertaining if troubled piece of historical fiction, now at the Belasco Theatre. This unusual work (first presented at Shakespeare’s Globe) has been penned by the actor’s wife, Claire van Kampen, and was clearly honed to take advantage of Rylance’s magnetic stage presence and unparalleled technique.
As the mad King Phillipe V of Spain, Rylance makes a memorable entrance onto Jonathan Fensom’s handsome stage set while lying in bed, dressed in silly bedclothes and fishing from a goldfish bowl as if it were the most natural thing in the world. From there, and for the next two-plus hours, Rylance proceeds to go instantly between madness and sanity, and conquers almost every emotion in between.
Sometimes he blusters and bellows – often at his beleaguered second wife, the Italian-born Isabella (a rather wishy-washy Melody Grove) and his pompous, conniving head of state, Don Sebastian de la Caudra (an excellent Edward Peel). At times he visibly despairs. Surprisingly often, he laughs and makes merry, even coming out to shake hands and dance with the audience. And although we frequently get the sense that we’re watching a great actor at work, rather than a truly mad monarch, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed.
Moved? Not so much – except when Philippe is directly interacting with Carlo Farinelli, a now adult castrato singer whom Isabella has recruited from England to cheer up her husband (with surprisingly startling results). Director John Dove has cleverly cast two similar-looking men in the role: the excellent British actor Sam Crane, who imbues the role with remarkable dignity and melancholy, and (at most performances) the sublime British countertenor Iestyn Davies, who performs several stunning Handel arias with almost supernatural skill.
Still, the play sometimes feels less than satisfying. The author, a first-time playwright, makes some freshman mistakes, including a less-than-convincing out-of-the blue romance between Farinelli and Isabella, a silly subplot involving Farinelli’s one-time boss, British impresario John Rich (an amusing Colin Hurley), and even the re-emergence of almost unrecognizable Rylance as a minor character later in the play, all of which feel unnecessary. The play’s tone also swings like a wild pendulum at times, and Dove lets some of its more antic moments go out of control.
However, in sharply detailing the relationship of these two basically unhappy men – the French-born Philippe never wanted to be a king, and Farinelli was castrated against his will as a child by his older brother – and how they temporarily save each other from their inner demons, Van Kampen has unquestionably created a worthy drama. Indeed, I suspect the play would be more satisfying as a two-hander – or should I say three-hander.