Farinelli and the King
5 December 2015 (Sat), West End
This was one tough ticket. I had tried for seats several times from Tokyo, but had only managed to get a standing-room seat for the evening show (and even those were eventually sold out). I went to the box office in the morning to see if I could find something better, and ended up snagging not just a seat but a house seat for the matinee – this was apparently the final day of performances, so the producers must have been holding back a number of tickets just in case. Great luck. And I even managed to sell my standing-room ticket to an extremely grateful guy. So all’s well that ends well.
The show (written by Rylance’s wife) is based on the true story of the noted castrato who, at the height of his fame, went to sing for Spain’s ailing King Philippe V in the 18th century – and never again sang in public. The king (a fantastic Mark Rylance) is clearly loony from the opening, where he’s shown fishing in a goldfish bowl and talking to the fish, prompting his main adviser to scheme to dump him. The worried queen has summoned the renowned Farinelli in hopes that singing would soothe the king’s soul. Lo and behold, it does seem to touch something, reenergizing him. The king and Farinelli both feel trapped in their worlds: the former was born into it, while the latter never wanted his career (much less his unfortunate operation) and welcomes the freedom of anonymity. The show questions our duty to others and to ourselves.
Farinelli the actor and Farinelli the singer are played by two different people, who appear on stage simultaneously during the musical interludes. The singer simply walks out and takes the spotlight at those times, while the actor steps back, a clever approach. The fantastic lighting is done primarily by candlelight, reflecting its origins in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I assume the set was a reconstruction of the playhouse. I loved when ornamental pieces suddenly detached from the ceiling and hung down briefly on strings like little stars. There was an orchestra playing period music, including arias by Handel and others known to have been sung by the actual Farinelli. It was extremely effective, including solos by a violinist prior to the show’s start and post-intermission restart.
Rylance commanded the stage even at the quietest moments. He has an evocative sad-sack face and a way of speaking as if he’s coming up with the lines at that moment, a great performance. He had ample support from Melody Grove (queen) and Sam Crane (Farinelli). The singer was the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, apparently a noted singer in his own right. I’m not sure anyone knows what an actual castrato sounded like (though there’s apparently a recording of the last known one), but this was a terrific and convincing interpretation.