It is often said that an actor is made for a particular role. Here at The Duke of York’s, Claire van Kempen has organised just that, by creating a part for her husband that fits him like a glove. Farinelli And The King premiered at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier in the year and the actor in question is, of course, the superlative Mark Rylance. He plays the 18th century Spanish monarch, Philippe V, a kind of European equivalent to our King George III, except that the former’s affliction was more manic depression and deep melancholia rather than mental illness.
The Duke of York’s, cosily situated in St Martins Lane, is worlds away from the Globe’s candlelit indoor theatre but, thanks to Director John Dove and Designer Jonathan Fensom, the Playhouse has been lovingly re-created, at least internally. From the wax dripping on-stage candles to the rearrangement of the seating and stage area, the intimate atmosphere is recaptured.
We first begin to suspect that all is not well with Phillip’s state of mind when we see him lounging, bedecked in a brocade dressing gown, talking to and then trying to capture with a rod and bait, a goldfish in a bowl. Whimsical? Certainly. Funny? Extremely. And, as ever with Mark Rylance, his delivery is downplayed and hesitant as if he is struggling with what he wants to say. In other words, what every actor is trying to do. Make every sentence sound as if it’s the first time it has been uttered. One of, no, actually, our best actor does it effortlessly.
But this King is not all languid capriciousness. There is a sharp tongue lurking within this gentle soul and his wife, Isabella, is often on the receiving end. Bearing all that’s thrown at her with a quiet dignity, this most patient of Queens eventually decides that something must be done to snap her husband out of his abject inertia. To stop him exploiting his malady when it suits, just because he has had to endure a role he never desired, that of King of the realm. Her solution is music, the therapeutic benefits of which have been known for thousands of years. To this end, she seeks out Farinelli, the world famous castrato, persuades him to change the opera house for the court and thus ensure that Phillipe has beautiful music “on tap”.
We are privy to the beautiful sounds that soothed the depressed King thanks to counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, who alternates with the actor Sam Crane in the role of Farinelli. Whilst Sam delivers the singer’s lines with a wonderful gravity, Iestyn delivers his music with an ethereal delicacy. I’ve always maintained that opera isn’t for me, but hearing some of the loveliest arias of the 18th century performed so beautifully, I think I may have to revise my opinion.
It’s not only Mr. Rylance and Mr. Davies who captivate. Melody Grove as Isabella is also superb. Her love and devotion to her mercurial husband is unmistakable and she radiates goodness and grace without ever being cloying.
But, as ever, it is the mesmerising Mark Rylance who is the draw in this pitch perfect production. The man is a genius and I am more than a little in love with him; I and several hundred other women theatregoers!