How good must a show be to make it worth seeing? I found myself asking this question on the way home from “Farinelli and the King,” the new play by
Claire van Kampen
that has brought Mark Rylance back to Broadway. On paper, “Farinelli” is scarcely more than a tissue-thin vehicle for Mr. Rylance, whose star-turn performance is a quirky catalog of his usual stage tricks. By all rights it ought not to work at all—yet “Farinelli” still contrives to cast an odd spell on the viewer, and its best moments have a delicate beauty that will stay with you.
Farinelli and the King
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
$32-$169, closes March 25, 2018 212-239-6200/800-432-7250
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Part of what makes “Farinelli” memorable is its subject matter. It’s a history play about one of the most mysterious relationships in the history of classical music—that between Spain’s King Philip V (referred to in the play as “Philippe” and played by Mr. Rylance), who suffered from what is widely thought to have been an incapacitating case of manic depression, and Farinelli, the legendary 18th-century Italian castrato, whose exquisite singing eased the king’s suffering. In 1737, the 32-year-old Farinelli abandoned his operatic career to become Philippe’s court musician, and never sang in public again. Not at all surprisingly, his improbable life has already been portrayed in a biopic and several operas. Now comes Ms. Van Kampen, Mr. Rylance’s wife and the longtime house composer at Shakespeare’s Globe, who had never before written a play but became so fascinated by Farinelli that she decided to take a fresh crack at putting him on stage. First performed at the Globe in 2015, her debut was a critical and commercial success that subsequently transferred to London’s West End and has now arrived on Broadway.
As has been widely noted, “Farinelli and the King” bears a decided family resemblance to
“The Madness of George III” (with a bit of “The King’s Speech” stirred in to sweeten the pot). This close resemblance underlines the chief weakness of Ms. Van Kampen’s play, which is that none of her characters ever say anything interesting or memorable. A playwright like Mr. Bennett or
would have given them dialogue that exteriorized the rich complexities of their inner lives, but Ms. Van Kampen’s Farinelli, played by
is an inscrutable stick figure, while her Philippe is a walking thesaurus of stage-madness clichés (“This is my dream, not yours—stay out of it”). Nor does her plot have any dramatic tension: It unfolds in a wholly surprise-free manner, taking every possible opportunity to be obvious.
This brings us to Mr. Rylance, who is at his best when playing strongly defined characters, as he does in “Bridge of Spies” and “Dunkirk.” In the absence of firm authorial guidance, his acting is apt to dissolve into a cloud of twee mannerisms, which is what happens here. These mannerisms are all too familiar from his previous New York stage appearances, enough so that I finally felt like yelling “Stop throwing away your lines—just try speaking them, will you?”
What, then, makes “Farinelli and the King” worth the price of the ticket? The production, for openers. Designed by
it is closely similar in approach to the Elizabethan-style stagings of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” that Mr. Rylance and the Globe brought to Broadway in 2013, only fancier. The proscenium stage of the Belasco Theatre is lighted with candles and fitted out with boxes, and a seven-piece period-instrument band accompanies Farinelli in eight lovely
arias that are not unlike the kind of thing the real-life Farinelli might have sung. Moreover, Ms. Van Kampen and
the director, have had the ingenious idea of using two performers, Mr. Crane and
the British countertenor, to play Farinelli. Each time Mr. Crane opens his mouth to sing, Mr. Davies appears onstage as if by magic, filling the air with sounds of unearthly beauty. Whenever that happens, it’s easy to believe that Farinelli’s singing was capable of curing any ailment short of end-stage cancer.
The result is a show that is all frosting and no cake. Still, the frosting is the very best butter cream, and thanks to Mr. Davies’s singing and Mr. Dove’s staging, “Farinelli and the King” manages to circumvent its dramatic deficiencies and hold your attention—if you love music. I would have paid to see and hear Mr. Davies’s flawlessly staged performance of “Lascia ch’io pianga,” which brings the evening to its haunting close. If, on the other hand, baroque arias sung by countertenors leave you cold, I can’t imagine that you’ll get much out of it, save for an overwhelming desire to attend a first-class revival of “The Madness of George III.”
—Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic. “Billy and Me,” his new play, runs at Palm Beach Dramaworks through Dec. 31. Write to him at email@example.com.