As television screens seemed to be filled with lingering shots of Mark Rylance in his role as Thomas Cromwell in BBC’s Wolf Hall, he returned to his old hunting ground at the Shakespeare Globe to take the role of the dotty Philippe V of Spain, patron of Farinelli, in Claire van Kampen’s play with music ‘Farinelli and the King’ (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 24 Feb). In a role that he could have been born to play, the mercurial Rylance mischievously teased and inveigled the audience into the world of the complexly depressive King, starting with the very opening scene where he chats to his goldfish as he tries to catch it with a fishing rod.
Better known as the composer of the music for many of the Globe’s Shakespeare productions (and, perhaps, also as Mrs Rylance) this was Claire van Kampen’s debut as a playwright. She has produced a play that is full of humour and sensitive insight into the world of madness and depression, as well as a fascinating insight into the world of Farinelli in the court of the crazy king. In a similarly excellent performance, the appropriately named Melody Grove played the King’s wife, Isabella, who had procured Farinelli from London to aid the King. Sam Crane acted the role of Farinelli, but in an clever twist to the play, we also had the outstanding countertenor Iestyn Davies taking on the singing side of Farinelli’s life, the combination of both sides of Farinelli’s personality on stage at the same time adding a fascinating psychological aspect to the evening. This worked a great deal better than I thought it would, and proved to be an illuminating insight into the often divided personalities of performers, with Farinelli’s insecure and reticent side becoming all too evident as the evening progressed, and as his relationship with Philippe and Isabella grew stronger.
The miniature band of musicians was directed from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, although unfortunately his pre-play playing was drowned out by the chatter of the excitably audience. I was rather glad that, despite Rylance’s extraordinary (and unashamedly crowd-pleasing) acting, it was for Iestyn Davies that the audience reserved its strongest applause. And so they should.