Farinelli and the King, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, London. February 2015.
Liking and admiring Mark Rylance as an actor has become hugely popular this year thanks to his role in Wolf Hall and as a result of this Rebecca and I were pleased to have booked tickets to Farinelli and the King way back last year. We already knew he was great without waiting to see him on the small screen!
So much could have been wrong with Farinelli - it was a new piece of theatre (with music/opera), written by Rylance's wife for him and performed in a theatre that is not the most comfortable to sit in. Luckily we found it to be a great afternoon.
It is based on a true story where the King of Spain is mad. The play opens with the king (Rylance) lounging in bed fishing in a goldfish bowl and talking to the fish. His state of health is ambiguous at this point as he mostly seems lucid. His leading ministers are not happy with him and think that he should be replaced. His situation worsens but with the help of his wife and doctor a new cure is tried - that of music and the leading castrati of the day, Farinelli, is invited to court and appears to cure the king.
There are a few nuances and added parts to the story but it remains very simple and very affecting, the king remains mostly well as long as Farinelli sings. There is a very interesting device used for Farinelli however, and one that I didn't spot at first.
When Farinelli is singing the actor playing the role doesn't actually sing, someone else - when we saw it Iestyn Davies provided the amazing voice - appears on stage next to Farinelli and they mimic each others movements. It sounds terrible written down but on stage worked amazingly, Farinelli the man wanted to be seen as different from the voice and so on stage he physically was. Only in the very last scene did the two men actually interact and that added more poignancy to the piece than anything for me.
While the play was very good I have to say that I did find it a little jarring that despite the setting and costumes all being redolent of the 1700s the language used was entirely 21st century. It made for some funny moments but did create a little barrier between me and the play. Possibly a bad attempt at replicating actual speech from the time would have been just as bad however!
This was a lavish production with not a weak member of cast and a full ensemble piece - something that I would imagine is hard to create when Rylance is the leading man. His charisma and skill shone through and I am now desperate to see him on stage in a truly modern piece. Farinelli and the King has a very short run at the SWP and while I'd love to see it transfer so more people could see it the setting was ideal and in a bigger venue the intimacy created here could not be replicated I feel.