Mel Brooks might have been incorrect.
It’s not necessarily good to be the king.
Take King Philippe V (1683-1746). He was born in Versailles and yet wound up the supreme ruler of Spain — a fate, if the new play FARINELLI AND THE KING is to be believed, that brought him no happiness.
We learn this as he confides his fears and doubts to his beloved pet.
That’s not so strange; many people talk to their dogs or cats. Philippe, though, has a decidedly one-sided conversation with the goldfish he has floating in a bowl.
“How much happier you are than I,” says the native born Frenchman who feels like a fish out of water in Spain.
When your best friend is a goldfish, you’re at the very least lonely or, far more likely, crazy. At the very least, Philippe gives new meaning to the term “pretender to the throne.”
Philippe’s choice of a doofus hat alone makes us question the man’s sanity. He also has more than the average number of phobias; even The Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ was less afraid of fire than this “noble.”
As the king, Mark Rylance gives yet another brilliant performance. This time, though, he’s had a peck of help from his wife, Claire van Kampen, who’s usually a composer but this time wrote this vehicle for him.
Rylance has a face that mixes Jim Dale, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel resulting in many more than Fanny Brice’s 36 expressions. One of the most amusing comes when he has the king wool gathering, which he does quite often; Rylance keeps you guessing what the hell is going through that addle-brained head of his.
Every now and then he comes out with a perception that has some worth — “Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare” – but he can also go from funny to furious in a split of a split-second. So a king such as this is not going to enjoy unconditional support, and Philippe has enough wits about him to note “I am not loved.”
Among his many detractors is Marques Don Sebastian De La Cuadra, who would like him off the throne in the next six seconds. Here’s the surprise, though; La Cuadra is not trying to usurp the throne for himself, which is usually the case in these court-of-intrigue dramas; the man simply wants the country in the very best of hands.
And what of Queen Isabella who says absolutely nothing when Philippe blubbers “You know how much I’ve missed you” and doesn’t return his embrace? Here too is a surprise; Isabella does care for him on a certain level. So, on a trip to England where she discovers this brilliant singer named Farinelli, she surmises that if she brings him to Spain, the glorious music his just-as-glorious voice can sing might make her husband a better man.
La Cuadra doesn’t think so. “The king cannot be cured by a song,” he sneers (and actor Edward Peel sneers very well). But Philippe is so impressed with Farinelli that he actually hands him his crown. We must wonder if van Kampen or director John Dove had the sharp idea of letting us see the dust come off it during the exchange. What a symbol and metaphor!
So Wife Knows Best: art does have its own healing power, doesn’t it? And while the king is coming around to the man’s beautiful singing — “the music of the heavens,” he calls it — Isabella comes to love Farinelli.
Some audience members might automatically assume that their love can never be — and not because of the royalty/commoner issue. For long before this, van Kampen establishes that Farinelli is a castrato. He was made so in his pre-teen years by a brother who knew a golden voice when he heard one and wasn’t above taking ruthless measures to keep it at that 24-karat level to make plenty of gold for the family.
But in case you’re not up on what these guys can and cannot do, eunuchs aren’t able to sire children, but they can get erections which are contingent on blood flow, not testosterone. So a good time could be had by both Farinelli and Isabella.
Enough biology: the play’s the thing, and is it ever — a thrilling, word-rich truly theatrical experience as elegant as Jonathan Fensom’s costumes and Handel’s music.
The casting of Isabella makes us question Shakespeare’s question “What’s in a name?” For Isabella, who appreciates melody, is played by a splendid actress named Melody Grove. A queen-by-marriage in those days played a distant second fiddle to her husband, so Grove treads carefully in showing how Isabella had to exert expert diplomacy to get what she wanted. When you don’t have a lot of pull, you must push – but, Isabella knows, not too hard.
Finding someone who can effectively sing in a castrato’s stratospheric register and be a convincing actor as well must have been too difficult an assignment, for van Kampen and/or Dove opted to have two men share the role: Sam Crane enacts a fine Farinelli, grateful that (so-called) nobility comes to cherish him. A castrato could have self-esteem issues, and the halting delivery that Crane uses is similar to Rylance’s, which may also be a factor in why the two men bond.
Iestyn Davies beautifully handles the Handel. If you don’t know FLAVIO from Fabio, you will still appreciate his vocal pyrotechnics. And for the record, Davies is NOT a castrato. He couldn’t have sacrificed that much for his art even if his parents had wished it, for the practice of mutilating boys and ruining at least a part of their lives was outlawed in 1902.
Best of all, FARINELLI AND THE KING is theater as its purest. The lighting relies on what we would have seen in the 18th century: candlelight and nothing more. The result shows that few Broadway productions can hold a candle to the mood that Jonathan Fensom provided here.
Not only that, the music is played on period instruments, and the only microphone you’ll find in the Belasco is the one that’ll tell you prior to the show to turn off your damn cell phones.
In other words, the simple (but not simplistic) values that were evident in the Rylance-enhanced productions of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III four seasons ago are once again in evidence for all to see and hear. If you missed those two, at least capture this third jewel of the triple crown.