REVIEW: Farinelli And The King, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Melody Grove and Sam Crane in Farinelli And The King at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Melody Grove and Sam Crane in Farinelli And The King. Photo: Marc Brenner

Farinelli And The King
Sam Wanamaker Theatre
4 March 2015
4 Stars

The King is in bed, fishing. Not for compliments, but for fish. Well, a fish. In a goldfish bowl. Is he dreaming? Is he insane? Is he bipolar? The Queen tries to soothe him, to reach beyond his barriers, to love him, with care, patience and understanding, so that he might emerge from his darkness and rule Spain once more, be again the grandson of the French Sun King. But she can’t get through to him. Neither can his Council, who try bullying and threats of de-throning, rather than love or respect or understanding, to bring him out of his torpor. No tactic works.

In despair, the Queen goes away. While fretting outside Spain, she hears the famed Opera superstar, Farinelli, sing. His heavenly, ethereal, soothing, incredibly musical, voice touches her in ways she scarcely comprehends. She hits upon a plan. Could Farinelli’s extraordinary voice provide relief for the troubled mind of her husband, her King?

The answer can be found at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, where Claire van Kampen’s new play, Farinelli And The King, is having its premiere season, in a production directed by John Dove. It is a slight, but quite beautiful, play, perfectly suited to the intimate grandeur of the space, and quite intoxicating, so perfectly judged is everything about it.

The candles which provide the stage illumination bask proceedings in a warm, amber glow which is perfectly attuned to the heart of the narrative. The music is sumptuously performed, with gifted musicians playing (Robert Howarth, John Crockett, Arngeir Hauksson and Jonathan Byers) and William Purefoy in delightful voice as the Castrati for All Seasons, the titular Farinelli. (Purefoy shares the role with Iestyn Davies).

A clever conceit is employed with the Farinelli role. The talented Sam Crane takes the acting burden, but when it comes time to sing, he is either joined onstage or replaced there by Purefoy, costumed precisely to match Crane. Cleverly, this conceit separates the voice from the man, replicating Farinelli’s painful castration as a ten year old boy. The man could not have that voice; the voice is unnatural; the voice is out of this world. Both in terms of the themes the play touches on and the theatricality of the playing, this duality in the representation of Farinelli is inspired. It permits the best acting and the best singing.

Purefoy has a strong, rich and agile counter-tenor. He is a delight to hear. The timbre of his voice is alluring; full of expressive, smoky tones as well as nimble grace-notes and impressive flourishes. The sustained passages are properly supported and energised and there is none of the lazy indifference to sound production which can be found in less proficient voices of this type. Which is just as well, because nothing could save this work if the singing of the counter tenor was not magnificent.

Sam Crane is in terrific form as the diffident Opera superstar. Unsure of himself when not in costume, onstage and in front of an orchestra, Crane’s Farinelli is a gentle, kind and troubled soul. It is clear he would have his testicles back in an instant. The trappings of fame and wealth do not appeal as much to him as being normal, being part of a family, doing something good.

Crane brings all of this background to the fore by a winning performance that is as much about how he stands or the way his face is composed as it is about his mastery of the language. It’s a complex and layered performance, bursting with nuance and charm; funny as well as moving. His speech about his operatic debut in London is the highpoint of the play. Crane clearly depicts the pain and solitude of overwhelming fame.

As Isabella, Philippe V’s second wife, Melody Grove is enchanting in every way. She demonstrates her dedication and devotion to her husband effortlessly, and you would bet on her against the King’s Council any day: she may seem beautiful and demure, but the fires of her passion burn deeply. Her speech about the glory of Farinelli’s vocal work is expertly, thrillingly delivered. The delicate, intricate relationship between Isabella and Farinelli is touchingly illuminated by Grove and Crane who are perfectly in sync. Generous, detailed and classy performances.

Edward Peel is suitably arrogant and irritating as the punctilious grandee of Spain, De la Cuarda, the functionary who mistrusts his muddle-minded monarch. As Doctor Cervi and Metastasio, Huss Garbiya and Colin Hurley have little to work with, but both acquit themselves nicely, providing some extra interest as idiosyncratic insiders in the plot-light narrative.

Van Kampen’s play is a gorgeous confection and it touches upon interesting themes: the healing power of music; the question of “high art” and the access of the community to it; beauty in unnatural form; the relationship between pain and greatness. These are all interesting facets to the central jewel in van Kampen’s crown: the unique, peculiar relationship between Farinelli and Philippe. Both men consider themselves to be where they are for unnatural reasons: Farinelli because of his castration, Philippe because grandfather Sun King chose him for his post. Both men suffer because of the unnatural burden they bear.

Equally, both come to appreciate and be healed by the virtues, achievements and abilities of the other. There is a delightful sequence in the second Act where Philippe contrives to make Farinelli perform for the communities local to the forest where they have been living, communing with nature and the musicality of the spheres in the heavens. It’s an important moment for both men: Philippe signifying that he will support his wife’s interest in Opera and making it available to the masses; Philippe suggesting that Farinelli should perform in public again and understand why his gift should be enjoyed by many; and Farinelli understanding that his work in healing the King has gone as far as it probably will.

In the programme, van Kampen says: “The role of the King is a very particular one in that the actor has to inhabit the mind and body of a man who is severely disturbed, but who is loved very much. I would have to say that remembering Mark play Hamlet in 1988 and again in 2000 was seminal to me creating this role; Hamlet behaves appallingly to everyone in the play (except Horatio) but the audience cares for him throughout. That’s Shakespeare’s genius of course, but Mark’s ability to play those kinds of roles (as with Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem in 2011) did place him firmly in my mind at the heart of this play.”

No doubt. Rylance is married to van Kampen and she has had many years to consider and reflect upon his many fine attributes as an actor. This is all reflected clearly in the writing: the role of Philippe is for a mercurial, graceful actor, one that can simper like a two year old and roar like an invading tyrant, all within one complete, complex and constantly gear-changing portrait of dysfunction.

Rylance is excellent in every way, particularly in the sense of humble tolerance which underpins the more rational aspects of his Philippe. He is very funny, but also the pain and difficulty of depression is acutely conveyed. There is are moments when Philippe turns on Isabella and wounds her, almost breaking her wrist or biting her lip; these are purely savage moments, propelled by incandescent rage borne out of madness and Rylance pulls them off magnificently.

With a light touch and an open eye for comic possibilities, Rylance shows clearly the King’s struggle with sanity and duty. He breaks the fourth Wall often, always to good effect, and his rapturous response to the music Farinelli makes is quite inspiring. It’s good to see him tread the boards (finally) on the Sam Wanamaker stage.

Jonathan Fensom provides a clever, and quite sumptuous, design for the production. His solution for the forest scenes in Act Two was especially good. The costumes are marvellously detailed and colourful – Isabella’s dress in the forest scenes is breathtakingly beautiful.

Dove’s production is gentle and gorgeous. The play won’t change the world and nor does it necessarily faithfully represent the true historical picture, but it is amiable and radiates warmth and joy. Good storytelling, superb acting and tremendous musicality – a powerful cocktail and a very happy time in the theatre.

Farinelli And The King will transfer to the Duke Of York’s Theatre on September 14, 2015

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