Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance is in brilliant form as Philippe of Spain wrestling depression and finding companionship with the famous castrato Farinelli. Writes Laurence Green…

Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King

A celebration of the restorative power of music and how it can transform even in the darkest of times is provided by musical director turned-debut playwright Claire van Kampen in the witty and moving drama Farinelli and the King, which has transferred from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe to the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End.

The bipolar King Philippe V of Spain suffers spells of depression, bordering on insanity. So, the worried Queen desperate to find a cure travels to London in 1737 to engage the celebrated castrato Farinelli to sing at the Spanish court. Initially wary of the newcomer, Philippe finds in him a kindred spirit: both leaders in their respective spheres, yet both also conscious of their deprivations. What follows, as Philippe leaves Madrid for a life of rustic simplicity is a vivid account of the therapeutic value of music and of the enduring bond between two men.

This inspiring true story features many exquisite arias by Handel, which were first sung by Farinelli in the 18th century, and live music played on Baroque instruments. With the Duke of York's itself transformed into a replica of a small Elizabethan theatre (the stage area that is), lit almost exclusively by the glow of candlelight, the atmosphere of the piece is built immeasurably.

Claire van Kampen's illuminating script with its ripe contemporary dialogue and calculating anachronisms, effortlessly interweaves story and song, while highlighting the distinction between Farinelli's public fame and private self.

It is a pleasure to find one of our greatest actors, Mark Rylance, in a role that suits him to a tee and which he makes his own – that of Philippe V of Spain. We first encounter him fishing for goldfish in his bedroom and this gives Rylance the chance to display the King's whimsical strangeness, mood changes and inner shrewdness. Through the course of the play, Rylance manages to be petulant, lubricious, warm and vulnerable and also dark and troubling, in what can be regarded as one of his best performances. As his long-suffering, opera-loving wife Queen Isabella Farnese, Melody Grove is equally impressive. Fine support comes from Sam Crane as the world famous castrato.

I should add that I was completely enraptured by the crisply beautiful voice of countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose rendering of Handel's arias certainly captivated a packed auditorium.

An evening of pure bliss!   

Farinelli and the King

Plays at the Duke of York's Theatre until Saturday 5 December 2015

Box office: 0844 871 7623


Photograph: Simon Annand

Last modified: April 7, 2021

Written by 4:03 pm Theatre