Farinelli and the King is another case of stardust getting in everyone’s eyes. Mark Rylance was the toast of New York for his dazzling comic performance in Boeing-Boeing a decade ago, winning a richly deserved Tony. (It’s one of a handful of plays I’ve seen twice in their runs.) Two more Tonys and an Oscar later he’s pretty much got the keys to the city in the pocket, but he doesn’t do much more than jingle them in this inert hunk of fictionalized bio-drama, written by Claire van Kampen, a noted composer. (And Rylance’s spouse, which I’ll leave right there.)
With all those awards it’s only fitting that Rylance should play a king, and here his lordship is as Spain’s Philippe V, who we encounter in a deeply agitated state, fishing for goldfish in a fishbowl. That’s a promisingly funny-weird start, so perhaps the play will head in the direction of The Madness of George III, another tale of eccentric monarchy. But then it starts doodling and dawdling, as the queen, Isabella (Melody Grove), frets about her errant elder husband’s condition. (What we would call “bipolar” today.) Then, the solution–the legendary castrato Farinelli (Sam Crane) performs before the monarch, and the king is charmed, and calmed. Tired of touring, Farinelli stays on, disturbing the court, which finds the Italian singer’s attention suspect. So, maybe Amadeus and a story of intrigue is in the offing?
No, I’m afraid nothing of interest happens, as Rylance does little bits of business and Farinelli sings, and sings, and sings. “Too many notes!” as the emperor remarks in Amadeus, and for me, a little trilling of Handel goes a long way. There’s a lot of it here, ably performed by counter tenor Iestyn Davies, who shadows Crane as inconspicuously as possible onstage. But under the direction of John Dove no compelling storyline emerges. Late in the second act, there’s a plot turn involving Farinelli and the queen that suggests darkness ahead, but this too is dispelled. There’s a few things to look at–Jonathan Fensom’s handsome two-tiered set, in the handsome Belasco, with some audience members arranged around the stage, Lorraine Ebdon-Price’s costumes, the goldfish. All this high-culture atmosphere is however imprisoning, and I felt welded to my seat, crushed by poshly appointed boredom. I can forgive a king of actors this indulgence, so long as he promises to visit his loyal subjects with an actual play the next time he comes.