“Farinelli and the King” about “crazy” monarch is subtle political commentary

By Lucy Komisar

This gorgeous fantasy by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove, is based on a real story, with the narrative setting art and sensitivity against the plotting of ambitious court politicians of the time. The candles on overhanging chandeliers suggest the whimsy that is a mirror of reality.

Singer Iestyn Davies as Farinelli, Mark Rylance
as the king, Melody Grove as Queen
Isabella, photo Joan Marcus.

Philippe V (the brilliant Mark Rylance) is the feeble-minded 18th-century Spanish king who was the grandson of King Louis XIV of France. (It was the time of imperialism by Europe‘s royals.) He talks to a goldfish and fishes in the bowl as in a dream.

When his Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove) lights a candle, he throws water from the bowl to put out the flame. And so goes the fish. He is outrageous, crazy, sometimes funny. Grove as Isabella is sympathetic and warm. Reality is cruder.

The black and gold wood wall design features a large painting of a rider on a horse. Maybe symbolic. The men of the court plot to remove him. They want him to abdicate. (Is that the 18th-century deep state?)

Melody Grove as Isabella, Lucas Hall, Huss Garbiya, Edward
Peel as members of the court, and Mark Rylance as the king,
photo Joan Marcus.

Then reality trumps fantasy. Farinelli (Sam Crane as the actor and Iestyn Davies doubling as the countertenor in gold brocade coats circa 1738) arrive to sing to him. Farinelli is a castrato, and his ethereal voice enchants the king.

Iestyn Davies the singer and Sam Crane
the actor as Farinelli, photo Joan Marcus.

Suddenly Philippe becomes sharper! He seems cured of madness. He reforms the tax system! (Can we get him here?)

There is a discussion about the need to get support of the French, because there may be war with England. (Let him stay in the 18th century. We are still there!)

Then he turns into a nature fan and traipses off with his wife to the country. The set turns into a forest. It‘s an experiment. They notice the planets, an eclipse of the sun. Attention to cookery, including paella. Better than fighting the English!

Mark Rylance as the king, Melody Grove
as Isabella, photo Joan Marcus.

Rylance, one of the greatest English stage actors, inhabits the character. To see him is thrilling.

Sometimes the play seems like chamber opera. We get a sense of the mood, invented but inspired. And Farinelli, castrated by his brother at age 10 so he could be a great singer, falls in love with Isabella. Heart and body are obviously separate.

Looking back, perhaps the madness was not in the king, but in his war-gaming members of court.

Farinelli and the King.” Written by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove. Shakespeare‘s Globe at Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., NYC. 212-239-6200. Opened Dec 17,2017, closes March 25, 2018. 2/18/18.

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