In the early-1700s, King Philip V of Spain was suffering from a debilitating mental illness we can today recognize as bipolar disorder. But back in the 18th century, his alternating spells of frenzy and stupor were a mystery presumably best handled by abdication — at least until his wife, the queen, hears the renowned opera singer Farinelli in London and brings him back to Madrid. Farinelli’s angelic voice (he was castrated by his brother at age 10) seems to bring the King back to life. And so Farinelli remained in Madrid, like a songbird in a cage, performing for an audience of one for nine years, until he retired in Bologna, never to publicly perform again.
Just writing out the premise of Farinelli and the King, currently playing at the Belasco Theatre, I’m washed with a renewed awareness that the story — a real-life historical anecdote — should be more than able to sustain a two-hour or so play. After all, the best musical of the season is about a group of musicians who take the wrong bus and must wait overnight to take the correct bus in the morning. The elements of Farinelli and the King taken in isolation are fascinating: a king stripped of his senses and teetering on the edge of losing his power; the queen, a second wife, feeling her own status threatened; the opera signer, butchered at a young age, reconciling with a newfound realization that his trauma might be the key to saving another.
And yet, somehow Farinelli and the King — directed by John Dove and written by Claire van Kampen — unfolds as lethargic and two-dimensional, too enamored with its own cleverness and obvious metaphors (see the king playing with a goldfish in a bowl? Isn’t he, too, like a forgetful goldfish in a bowl, constantly observed?) to provide anything of real emotional weight. It has the rare distinction of not only failing to amount to more than the sum of its parts, but somehow diminishing those parts in the attempt.
Of course, I have gone this far without mentioning that Mark Rylance, in the role of the king, is as brilliant as one might expect from one of the most lauded actors of his generation. On stage, the Oscar- and Tony-winner is magnetic and infinitely compelling, every twitch of his besocked-toe contributing to one’s sensation that all of his acclaim has been justly awarded. But given the shallowness of the show around him, Farinelli and the King could more accurately be characterized as a showcase for Rylance, a two-hour, live-action segment of an acting reel: a brilliant performance with no context.
The set of the show, it should be noted, is stunning: Farinelli transferred from London’s Globe Theatre, and brought with it an aesthetic of dripping candelabra chandeliers and painted sets — evoking the sensation of being granted a private performance at Versailles, King Philip V’s childhood home. Iestyn Davies, in the role of Farinelli’s singing voice (Sam Crane, in identical costumes, acts as Farinelli when he is not singing), is dazzling — mischievous in brief moments and then, when he opens his mouth, angelic (Crane also does well with what he has, capturing the nervous vanity of a man famous for a reason he sees as a damnation).
But that dichotomy — Farinelli feels detached from his acclaimed, public persona — is never fully explored, nor are the nuances of Farinelli’s relationship with Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) nor, astonishingly, Farinelli’s friendship with the king. It seemed nearly every time Farinelli performed, Rylance was, infuriatingly, off stage. The show might have more accurately been titled Farinelli and the Ill-Timed Costume Change.
Any time Rylance is available on stage to a New York audience, it’s impossible not to recommend you see him. But Farinelli and the King is all dazzle and no depth. The show itself is an inadvertent criticism of the Baroque: interesting elements piled on top of each other until you can’t see the painting for the oversize gilded frame. B-