FARINELLI AND THE KING Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe

MONARCHY, MADNESS, MUSIC

Philip of Spain, grandson of Louise XIV and captive of 18c monarchic rigidity, is lying on his bed , fishing in a goldfish-bowl and announcing that it is all a dream. When his anxious queen Isabella (Melody Grove, moving both in affection and despair) coaxes him, he petulantly addresses the goldfish and throws the water at her candle shouting “Fire!”. Wilful eccentricity: petulant, childish denial. This is not the manically humble derangement of the last stage mad-king, Alan Bennett’s George III. For Philip, as the singer Farinelli later says “His madness was a kind of sorrow”.

To be credible, even lovable while portraying self-destructive depression shading to violence you need a special actor. Clare van Kampen has – for this her first play – the very special Mark Rylance. His strange openness and mournful mischief are familiar as Thomas Cromwell on TV, but onstage he is an even stranger marvel: hardly acting, rather seeming to endure some profound, cost-bearing inner event in each performance and not minding that we watch. He seems half-clown half-angel, those comic slanted eyebrows over a face oversensitive, visionary, quivering with the griefs of eternity and the music of the spheres.

Well, it gets you writing like that. Sorry. This extraordinary, heart-shivering two-hour adventure in the little Jacobean playhouse combines three of the most powerful emotional triggers in theatre: candlelight, Rylance, and Handel arias sung by Iestyn Davies. It is the trues story of King Philip’s depression, and how the only thing which made him almost sane was the voice of the great castrato singer, who in the manner of the day was brutally unmanned at ten years old to retain a “birdlike, unimaginable” high voice (here Davies’ unearthly flutelike counter-tenor).

We hear the same arias Philip would have known, and Van Kampen’s script and John Dove’s direction place them with the care of a master-jeweller setting fine stones. Each ones feels both necessary and astonishing, as it did to Philip himself. Sam Crane plays Farinelli; Davies appears alongside, in identical clothes, to sing. That could be distracting: but in evvect the subtle body language between the two men conveys another emotional message of the play – that great artists sometimes feel in awe of their own talent, afraid that like a magical pet it might desert them. In the final moment, in the singer’s old age, his avatar is not dressed like him, but in the bright brocade of his youth. Leaving, the tenor leaves puts a pitying, loving hand on the reclusive old man’s shoulder.

Beyond the intensely redemptive moments of song, it is a play painfully perceptive about depression : Philip’s initial “I lack for what I need. There is no song here” makes Isabella go to Vienna to recruit the singer. As he becomes more himself, he bossily decamps with wife and Farinelli to a forest to harmonize with the stars, the “ music of the spheres” . And when Farinelli tries to escape this captivity, he turns on his wife with shocking brutality and deploys a combination of threat and sulk and needy paranoia utterly authentic for anyone dealing with a half-cured serious depressive. “I don’t love you” he snarls at Farinelli “I just need you to sing”.

Have I conveyed the fact that it is often funny? Maybe not. But the courtier (Edward Peel ) frustrated by the King’s ineffectiveness, and the singer’s agent (Colin Hurley) have great moments . And van Kampen – like April de Angelis in FANNY HILL at Bristol last week – has a sly knack of keeping it credible yet throwing in moments of modern slang to prevent any sense of wearying 18c pastiche.

box office 020 7902 1400 to 7 march
rating five
5 Meece Rating

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