Before Bridge of Spies, The BFG and Wolf Hall made him familiar to millions, Oscar winner Mark Rylance was known to theatergoers as an actor who wore the heavy mantle of The Best with considerable grace and wit. In 2008, he accepted his first Tony award with an incomprehensible speech quoting an obscure Minnesota poet, and he did the same when he won his second Tony three years later. He’s played a substance-addled ex-motorcycle daredevil, the bedeviled best friend of a Don Juan juggling mistresses like so many bowling pins and most recently, switched off as Countess Olivia and King Richard III in alternating, all-male productions of Twelfth Night (Tony number 3) and Richard III (Tony nomination number 4).
When we first see him in Farinelli and the King, which opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre, he is standing on his royal bed, in royal pajamas, a fishbowl in one hand, a bamboo rod in the other, in mid-conversation with the goldfish eluding his line: “I see you are ignoring my bait,” Rylance, as King Philippe of Spain, says. We, on the other hand, not being fish, take the bait, hook, line and, as they say, sinker. We are in his spell for the next two-and-a-half hours.
I will side-step here for a moment to say that Rylance is not the only reason to see Farinelli and the King. A first play by composer Claire van Kampen, written for the actor who also is her husband, it’s the best play and the best production of the season so far. Yes, it’s a costume drama (the based-on-true story takes place in early 18th-century Madrid; the extravagant sets and pavonine costumes are the work of Jonathan Fensom, with gilded lighting by Paul Russell). Yes, it’s on the known theme of a mad king (c.f. Lear, George III, Ubu). Yes, it has a beginner’s nicks – unnecessary use of anachronism, a sometimes heavy-handed symmetry. But in the end, it’s wildly entertaining in the moment, and resonant in the aftermath. It’s not only fun, it’s really about something. Several things, in fact: The healing powers of music. The durability of love under the most trying circumstances. The belief in forces just beyond our perceptive facilities.
Philippe was chosen by his grandfather, Versailles-building Louis IV, the Sun King, to rule Spain. He suffered from what today would be diagnosed as bipolar syndrome. When he was up, he was very, very up and when he was down, he was known to have spent days in bed cushioned in his own excrement. The Court plots to have him abdicate. On a trip to London, his wife Queen Isabella, long-suffering incarnate, attends an opera performance by the renowned castrato Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, stage name Farinelli. He has a heavenly voice and, though he has none of his own, he believes in the music of the spheres.
Enchanted and convinced Farinelli will accomplish what the Spanish doctors have failed miserably to do, which is to spring Philippe from his funk, Isabella brings him back to Madrid and embeds him in the palace. His first encounter with the king turns into an abbreviated game of 20 questions:
Philippe: When were you made King?
Farinelli: I am not a king.
Philippe: I am afraid you are. We were both made kings against our will. You have a world of subjects, as I do. Mine were given to me by God, though. I wish I were a pagan.
Philippe: Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare. Being King isn’t normal. So He keeps us on a tight rein. When were you robbed of your normality?
Farinelli: I was ten years old.
Philippe: That is too old and also too young for such brutality…I was seventeen. But I am not Spanish. I am an imposter…Are you famous?
Farinelli: No. Farinelli is famous.
Before long, Farinelli has become Philippe’s opioid, and perhaps Isabella’s as well. Van Kamp has the singer played by two people: the actor Sam Crane and, at the performance I saw, the countertenor Iestyn Davies (James Hall sings the role at some performances), who emerges to stand behind Crane to sing the several arias Farinelli performs. Sometimes to calm the king, sometimes to amuse, always to reveal further parallels between them. (In a wonderfully wry exchange, Philippe proves, Hamlet-like, that he is not to be underestimated, nor misconstrued.) Still, he soon abandons the court as the three of them take up residence in a modest countryside farm, where they can learn the night sky and listen for that divine mystical music.
The earthly songs we actually do hear are mostly from Handel – i.e., Top 10 on the current charts; the most ravishing, and heart-breaking, are “Cara sposa” (“darling spouse”) and “Lascia, ch’io pianga,” (“let me weep for my cruel fate”) from Rinaldo.
The performances under John Dove’s direction are uniformly superb; in addition to Crane and Iestyn, they include the near-palpable forbearance of Melody Grove’s Isabella and the Rushmore-faced Edward Peel as Philippe’s conniving nemesis.
And then there’s Rylance. (Remember Rylance? It’s a review about Rylance.) He compels us to watch him in close-up, because he has the star’s gift of playing to the cheap seats without actually playing to the cheap seats. A sixteenth-inch twitch of the shoulder conveys the world-weariest of shrugs. The slight escalation of those drawbridge eyebrows rings louder than any shout of protest. And the throwaway line, like the subtle gesture, penetrates as keenly as any of Richard III’s mocking asides. Meticulously off-handed, it’s funny and sad, a performance to be savored in a totally engaging little triumph of a show.