Theatre review – Farinelli & The King at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Mark Rylance Mark Rylance burst to my attention in the acclaimed Jerusalem, as Johnny Rooster Byron, a play, character and performance I will almost certainly never forget. From that point on, I was determined to never miss him on stage in the future and had been sticking to this resolution very well over the last four years (which have seen him in the quirky La Bete, as well as reviving his Richard III and Twelfth Night at the Globe). Currently gaining a wider audience through his excellent portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall, I was therefore thrilled to hear he was to perform at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the indoor theatre at the Globe, which celebrated its first birthday last month. As the man who ran the Globe for a decade, it seemed right that he tread the boards of its newest stage and thanks to a friend having spare tickets, I was able to see him this weekend.

Iestyn Davies (front) and Sam Crane, both as Farinelli

Farinelli & The King is based on true events during the reign of King Philippe V of Spain, who suffered from what we would today diagnose as depression. As his advisers grew concerned as to his ability to lead the country and take whatever military action may become necessary, the Queen resorted to a rather unique and radical idea to try and restore her husband to health. She brought Farinelli, regarded as the greatest castrato (yes that does horribly refer to what you are thinking) in the world to the Spanish court. He is 32, famous and growing in success, with the world at his feet and yet he is being asked to step away to become one of the closest members of the King’s circle, as his incredibly unique voice brings a peace and happiness in to the ruler’s life. It sounds fictional, but historical accounts confirm that this did indeed happen. A composer herself, here writing her first play, what Claire van Kampen’s new play does brilliantly is ask us to wonder at what that relationship must have been like between them, what they must have talked about and how such a bond may have developed. The play, although set in the 1730s, is very modern in terms of language (there’s plenty of swearing from Rylance), as well as being very witty, as well as touching. Rylance is wonderful as King Philippe, conveying his deep melancholy, anger, playfulness and naughty sense of humour all brilliantly. I always feel Rylance gives a part of himself to the character in order to inhabit him and I certainly felt that again watching this production.

Melody Grove as Queen Isabelle

Sam Crane is very good as Farinelli, the young man whose loyalty to his King and Queen is very genuine and Melody Grove plays Queen Isabelle with a convincing strength and determination. I had been curious to see how the production would include Farinelli’s singing and this too was done superbly, with counter tenor Iestyn Davies appearing on stage with Crane, in the same costume, to sing at certain moments the arias which King Philippe heard all those years ago. This didn’t feel odd at all, in fact they felt like two halves of the same character, as you see Farinelli the man as well as Farinelli the singer. The result is an enchanting production, which transports the audience to another era, only enhanced by the period setting of this lovely little theatre. From my seat in the Pit at the front of the stage, I felt privileged to experience such an incredible voice, on top of some excellent acting. This is a lovely story and production, which highlights the power of music to help try and heal a person’s pain and how it can also bring such joy and peace to those who hear it. If you are able to pick up a ticket then it’s definitely worth the effort.

Farinelli & The King continues at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 8th March 2015. The run is sold out, but it is certainly worth contacting the box office for details of returns in advance or on the day. More information can be found here.


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