Farinelli and the King review – Mark Rylance gets lost in music

Plays about mad kings are always popular. After Alan Bennett’s portrait of George III, we now have Claire van Kampen’s fascinating study of the healing impact of music on Spain’s French-born Philippe V. With Mark Rylance as the king, the evening is guaranteed success, but what it really proves is how ideally suited this intimate space is to the mix of drama and music.

The story Van Kampen has to tell is itself extraordinary. The bipolar Philippe suffers bouts of depression bordering on insanity. So his head-hunting queen, Isabella Farnese, travels to London in 1737 to engage the celebrated castrato Farinelli to sing at the Spanish court. Initially wary of the imported superstar, Philippe finds in him a kindred spirit: both monarchs in their respective spheres yet both also conscious of their deprivations. What follows, as Philippe deserts Madrid for a life of rustic simplicity, is a vivid account of the therapeutic value of music and of the enduring bond between the two men.

With its calculated anachronisms and Shakespearean quotations, Van Kampen’s script is sometimes a bit knowing, but it interweaves story and song excellently.

Left to right, Melody Grove, Mark Rylance and Sam Crane in Farinelli and the King. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Farinelli makes the distinction between his public fame and private self, Carlo Broschi – and, in John Dove’s production, the role is skilfully divided. Sam Crane takes the speaking part, suggesting a modest man still pained to be reminded of his enforced castration at the age of 10. But Crane is shadowed by the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as the singing Farinelli and the moments when he renders two arias, Cara Sposa and Venti Turbini, from Handel’s Rinaldo, offer a pleasure that verges on the sublime.

The role of Philippe, first seen fishing for goldfish in his bedroom, also gives Rylance the chance to display the king’s whimsical strangeness, sudden mood changes and inner shrewdness. He does all this as well as you would expect. But, for my money, Rylance’s attempt to suggest that every line he speaks, rather than being pre-scripted, is plucked out of thin air, lapses into mannerism. There is, however, unflinchingly good support from Melody Grove as the tenacious Isabella, Edward Peel as a testily impatient Madrid chief minister and Colin Hurley as Farinelli’s deserted promoter, Metastasio. It all makes for a richly unusual evening that not only demonstrates music’s curative power for a mad king but its ability to offer spiritual uplift to just about everyone else.

Until 8 March. Box office: 020-7401 9919. Venue: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London.

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