Long before he became a major international stage actor with three Tony Awards under his belt, Mark Rylance used to run Shakespeare’s Globe. No surprise that he should be keen to try out its new indoor candlelit theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, nor that he should make it seem as democratic as its next-door neighbor, the Globe’s signature outdoor venue. In a curious play by his wife Claire van Kampen, “Farinelli and the King,” Rylance colludes with us and coaxes us into playing along. Fitting really: it’s a play about the power of great art for all.
Rylance plays the King of Spain, Philippe V, a man tired of life and heavy with depression. Like Rylance’s Hamlet 25 years ago, Philippe spends his days in pajamas. We first see him lying in bed, fishing for his goldfish. It’s a delicate, multi-faceted portrait of the illness, full of texture and care. Rylance laughs prim chuckles, even cracks the odd joke here and there, but his humor peters out. It’s like he deflates. His head droops and his eyes glaze over. Words slur with lethargy, as if even enunciation’s an effort.
In a bid to rouse her husband, his wife Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) seeks out “the greatest singer in the world,” an Italian castrato known only as Farinelli, for a lucrative solo performance. It works — so well, in fact, that Philippe keeps the singer all to himself. “Before I heard him sing,” the King sighs, “I thought it impossibly to hear divinity.”
Van Kampen’s tale is essentially a fable, albeit one drawn from history. It’s a slight story, and its appeal lies in its lightness. She packs it full of pleasing, straightforward oppositions: the court and the forest, beauty and pain. Farinelli’s voice, for example, stems from the agony of his castration, aged 10, and yet, in turn, it proves to be an alleviative, giving succur to the King’s mental health. Farinelli, too, finds his spirits lifted when he finally has an audience to match his talent, away from the lavish opera houses of Vienna and their vain status-hunters.
The problem is that it is an audience of one and, at a time of political questions about arts funding and accessibility, van Kampen puts forward a modest case for both. The King retreats with Farinelli in tow to live a simple life in the forest. In an impromptu performance with the real-life audience cast as the crowd of locals watching for free, the play hits its high-note, with countertenor Iestyn Davies stepping forward to trill a rousing aria.
The play is both entirely amiable and, being so straightforward, equally forgettable, but it’s made delightful by the playing. Rylance, who plays the space with half an eye on us, turns in a flirtatious, humble performance. Sam Crane catches some of the same soft-touch sadness in Farinelli and, along with Grove, offers an unfussy, generous performance. It allows John Dove’s production to practice its preaching — or it would in another context. It’s hard to advocate great art for all to a total audience of around 5,000, with tickets so scarce and sought after, they’re being hawked for £350 ($550).