“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” The playwright William Congreve wrote this line in his 1697 tragedy The Mourning Bride; the claim may be one of the earliest recorded bows to the effectiveness of what we call music therapy. Although Shakespeare suggested something similar a century earlier — in Twelfth Night — when Orsino exclaims, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
Several hundred years later, Claire van Kampen now provides further anecdotal confirmation of the powers of music in her magical play Farinelli and the King, now running on Broadway. It offers another tour de force role for her three-time Tony-winning husband, Mark Rylance, as the titular king — Spain’s often-thought-mad Philippe V.
First seen in an ornate robe and nightcap, fishing for a goldfish in a bowl, Philippe instantly seems as if he’s off his rocker — while sitting comfortably on his royal bed. Threatened and depressed at the thought of being deposed by a court official, Don Sebastian De La Cuarda (Edward Peel), his second wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), functions as Philippe’s most loyal protector.
As beautiful as she is loving, Isabella thinks she knows a curative. She’s heard the castrato Farinelli sing and suspects his ethereal voice could do a bit of ruler-soothing.
So she brings the famous man to court from London, where he’s under contract to agitated impresario John Rich (Colin Hurley). His short visit is so successful that he’s asked to stay on definitely — and he’s delighted. He’s grown tired of the wide adulation accorded him.
Two performers play Farinelli, who’s remembered in 2017 almost as much as Philippe. The sensitive Sam Crane speaks the lines and eventually experiences an anxious love exchange with Isabella. (It’s established that while Farinelli was castrated, he was not impotent; Philippe compliments him on his ability to “fuck.”) The equally sensitive Iestyn Davies sings the Handel arias, ending with perhaps the best-known, “Lascia, ch’io pianga,” from Rinaldo — chosen to match the sentiments of different scenes.
The doubling underlines one of van Kampen’s themes. When Philippe addresses his goldfish, Diego (no program credit cited), he explains that the “body cares very little for the affairs of the mind.” The conflict between Philippe’s mind and body is implicit throughout the play.
Over the course of two acts, Philippe is shown improving as a result of Farinelli’s vocal turns. Whether he entirely overcomes his mental distress, however, remains unclear. Shortly after emotionally awakening under Farinelli’s influence, he decides that court must remove to a forest area, where he can garden in modest clothes. (Costume designer Jonathan Fensom extravagantly presents outfits that range from the sumptuous to the ordinary.) The change from Madrid — which the French-born Philippe dislikes — to a rural area isn’t necessarily greeted as indicative of a sound mind. Yet the king is increasingly happy — and increasingly under Farinelli’s influence.
From the very start, Philippe also shows amusing signs of being, like so many lunatics, crazy like a fox. As a result, he outfoxes others while wrapped in his melancholia. Almost as often, he elicits any number of deliberate laughs.
But with military incursions ongoing, Philippe’s absence from Madrid and shaky equilibrium cannot be sustained. Nor can Farinelli’s stay be open-ended. And that’s where the play heads to its melancholy conclusion. For which an elegiac Handel aria contributes greatly.
Van Kampen, who’s composed the scores for many of Rylance’s productions, has dreamed up a stunning way to make a point that’s clearly of great meaning to her: the ability of music to affect change. She understands that it’s a goal best reached in theater by including music, and chooses an incident in history in which music ruled a ruler for endless enchantments.
She also understands that her husband is an actor of seemingly unlimited depth and breadth. Under John Dove’s wise direction, it’s always difficult to know where to begin praising the art of Rylance. Though he doesn’t sing in the conventional sense, his voice is musical and holds in its timbre — usually no matter his role — an irresistible vulnerability. It lends him a ingrained sympathy difficult for us to turn away from; his first-rate acting instincts inform not only his vocal delivery but also his physicality.
Aside from a strong supporting cast — led by Grove, Crane Peel, Iestyn and Huss Garbiya as the court physician — van Kampen is served by an absolutely stunning production, and here, some explanatory theater lore is required.
Farinelli and the King premiered at, and was written for, Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It was not, however, presented in the reconstructed wooden O but in the Sam Wanamaker, named for the American actor and determined man beyond the Globe’s rebirth. That house is not an Elizabeth replication but a Jacobean one. As such, it’s quite intimate (seating capacity: 340) and, according to period, is strictly lighted by candles. Sconces and candelabra abound. Scenery is often designed to resemble 17th century attitudes, which is especially apparent at the coup de theatre Act 1 finale. Talk about music having charms to sooth a savage breast!
Here on Broadway, the Belasco Theatre (with roughly three times the seating capacity) can’t offer quite the same period ambience, but as designed by its namesake, it remains a spectacular space. And though NYC ordinances preclude an entirely dark auditorium, lighting designer Paul Russell looks to be keeping candle illumination as the only stage amenity.
And like the small spaces in which Handel’s music was often first heard, Farinelli and the King is a chamber piece, perfect in delivering what van Kampen, Rylance and company set out to achieve.