Mark Rylance Stars in Farinelli & the King, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Farinelli & the King is a tender, heartwarming story about a King with madness, and the opera singer who saves his reign.

Obviously it’s Mark Rylance who is the main draw and he gives a perfect performance as the fragile king who may not be fit to rule but this is a lovely production that blends opera and drama into this interesting interpretation of a true story.

Philippe V (Mark Rylance) is losing his mind, retreating into his own world and abandoning his responsibilities as King. His devoted wife Isabella (Melody Grove) is determined though that her husband can be brought back, and certainly she’s going to do everything to keep the reins of power out from the hands of the King’s scheming adviser, De la Cuadra (Edward Peel).

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The Queen’s solution is the healing, almost redemptive power of the voice of revered castrato, Farinelli. And it works, for when Farinelli comes to sing for the King, an instant positive impact is obvious. But just as the King becomes freer of his madness, so Farinelli becomes trapped as the King refuses to release him, insisting he sing and stay for him indefinitely.

Intriguingly, the role of Farinelli is portrayed by two performers – an actor and a singer. The acting responsibilities are taken on by Sam Crane and the castrato pieces are sung, on alternate nights, by Iestyn Davies (who I saw) and William Purefoy.

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Both actor and countertenor are wonderful and this splitting of the role is not as confusing as you’d think, after all the two performers are both dressed identically and it’s clear who commands attention at that particular point.

Yet there’s also a fascinating dramatic angle to this splitting of the role. For just as Philippe struggles with the expectations placed on him as King, so Farinell’s journey in this story is how he comes to terms with the pressures of expectations in him, the performer, the great Farinelli. And how he reconciles this with the introvert he is away from the stage – the man behind the mask. This split personality – the performer and the man – is reflected beautifully in this split of the role.

And, of course, what benefits there are in having such talents as those of Iestyn Davies’. His singing was wonderful. His voice was beautiful and captivated the audience completely. And for anyone to command attention away from the box-office draw of this show is very impressive.

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Tickets are hard to come by for this show for one reason only – Mark Rylance. And, inevitably, his performance just knocks you out. His naturalism is extraordinary, and his portrayal of man whose sanity hangs by a thread is superb. One second he’s funny and cheeky, then at a snap of finger he’s physically threatening his wife. Then a snap later he’s effortlessly outwitting his ambitious adviser.

And the way Mark just flows so quickly, so effortlessly from one to the other without ever once breaking into cliché or caricature is just yet another example of why so many consider him the finest stage actor of his generation.

But though it is a treat to watch Mark Rylance in action, not everything in this play works as well.

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Writer Claire van Kampen has set up an interesting premise in this new play but the clandestine love affair between the singer and the Queen which suddenly materialises in the second half seems unbelievable and there’s no hint of repressed tensions in the first half which would make this plot development plausible.

Also once the King and the singer seem settled in their mutual dependency, the story seems to run out of ideas and it is all wrapped up rather hurriedly and awkwardly.

Nevertheless there is much enjoyment to be had in this beautiful, bittersweet production directed by John Dove. The blend of opera and drama within this sympathetic story makes for a romantic evening, especially in the wonderful intimacy of the candle-lit Playhouse. And, of course, there’s Mark Rylance.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London to March 8, 2015

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