The profound effects of music in relieving mental illness are explored in Claire van Kampen’s 18th century royal drama.

Mark Rylance as King Philip.

Mark Rylance as King Philip.

One is tired of singing, the other is tired of kinging. Between them, celebrated castrato Farinelli and King Philip V of Spain have had too much greatness thrust upon them. They struggle – the one with his surfeit of talent, and the other with a crushing depression bordering on madness that leaves his very kingdom at risk, as his chief minister De La Cuadra (a splendidly irritable Edward Peel) champs at the bit to replace him.

But the unearthly beauty of Farinelli’s angelic voice is the key to the King’s sanity, and once its therapeutic effect has been successfully tried, the royals are reluctant ever to let him go.

This is composer Claire van Kampen’s first play, backed by plenty of previous experience as a librettist.

She shows deft dramatic skill, aided by a superb performance from Mark Rylance as the King, who combines utter frailty and vulnerability with a steely selfishness and outright violence, directed mostly at his devoted wife. His terror at the idea of the darkness returning after Farinelli announces his intention to leave is an intensely poignant moment, and Rylance manages to keep us on board with masterly crowd control.

As the Queen Isabella Farnese, Melody Grove  combines her official hauteur with all the anxiety of a loving wife, though it’s clear she knows full well her own own future stability hangs entirely on the return of the King’s sanity.

But the power of director John Dove’s production is jet-propelled not only by Rylance, but by the quality of the singing from counter tenor Iestyn Davies as Farinelli  (with William Purefoy in the remaining performances). He does indeed have the ability to move souls and it would be too much to expect him to be an actor too, so Sam Crane plays the role, with an identically dressed Farinelli stepping in to sing. All credit, too, to musical director Robert Howarth.

The dreadful fate of the castrati is one of the most shocking aspects of the play – poor Farinelli was illegally mutilated at the age of ten, along with many others who didn’t even have the consolation of a successful musical career to follow.

The second half moves the action to a forest outside the city where the King, Isabella and Farinelli live quietly away from the court, with the King’s ambition limited to listening out for music from the stars.

The tendresse that develops between the Queen and Farinelli is not fully explored – indeed it seems unlikely they ever did much exploring of each other – but having introduced the idea of a yearning passion, this dramatic strand fades away rather abruptly.

There’s also a sense of galloping through the last part of Farinelli’s life, as his former agent Metastasio (Colin Hurley)  fills us in on what happened after his links with the court came to an end. This feels very abrupt after the dreamlike, ambling forest section of the play, although it does allow for one last burst of song from the retired and unloved Farinelli.

And this music, together with a great cast led by matchless Mr Rylance, makes Farinelli and the King an enthralling performance.


To 8 March,  020 7401 9919

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