“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” So wrote 17th-century playwright William Congreve. With that in mind, simply bundle up your cares and woes and head to the Belasco Theatre where the new play “Farinelli and the King” will show you just how right Congreve got it. Of course, having the generation-defining talent of Mark Rylance on stage to conjure the tormented king helps make that central premise entirely plausible.

Debut playwright, but distinguished composer Claire van Kampen has wrought a story of salvation through music set at the court of Philippe V of Spain just a few decades after Congreve penned his maxim. Inspired by both actual and imagined events, the play covers the arrival of acclaimed castrato singer Farinelli into the royal circle. The long-suffering Queen Isabella has recruited him in the hopes that his divine voice will bring her husband relief from the tortures of intermittent madness.

After some initial resistance from the court, Farinelli performs for the king and an immediate improvement is noted in the monarch’s balance of mind. The symbiosis that develops between these mutually traumatized protagonists emerges as the central preoccupation of the play.

Between performances by Farinelli, the king is struggling to tame his demented inner world and maintain some access to reality. Watching Rylance convey the pain, fear and vulnerability of that striving is heart-rending and unforgettable. (The play also leaves room for Rylance to be the master clown his fans relish, as we first meet the King in the intimacy of his bedchamber, fishing for goldfish.) His ability to reveal the deep humanity of the character without ever sacrificing a concomitant humility (in one of his more subtle portrayals to date) is the stuff of great acting – and Rylance is a great actor in the fullest sense of the term. Driven by his character’s ever-shifting mental landscape, Rylance contorts from moments of love and joy to moments of heart-stopping menace  at an almost dizzying pace and with mesmerizing effect.

Farinelli is played by an actor (Sam Crane) and a famous countertenor (Iestyn Davies). (James Hall takes over singing duties at certain performances.) It can be a challenge to pull off this sort of double casting without confusing the audience and cluttering the stage. But in this case the device works beautifully, thanks to director John Dove, who demonstrates a dab hand throughout. By directing our attention to two interpreters, we are able to separate Farinelli from his talent and understand the difference between his public and private selves (both he and the king are reticent to accept their respective fame and power).

And when supernaturally beautiful sounds emanate from Davies, the audience is meant to be as singularly focused and transported as the king. Crane’s sensitive and steady acting gently reveals the selfless sweetness of Farinelli’s nature, despite the sacrifice of his virility at a tender age to become a famous castrato and further his brother’s musical ambitions.

Overall, there is a fairytale-like lightness to the simplicity of the storytelling. This quality charms in places but can seem predictable or overly “on the money” in others. Indeed, experiencing the intimate scale of van Kampen’s six-character play makes one think of chamber music enhanced by dialogue, which indeed may be the point, as it puts us in the same position as the king in simply receiving and being revived by music.  

The music itself is a collection of superbly arranged and played period appropriate arias culminating in the emotionally devastating “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo. Clearly, as music arranger van Kampen is completely in her element.

However, the fairytale-like script leaves the supporting company, which is made up of strong actors, with underdeveloped characters. It is hard to get a read, for example, on the motives of the chancellor charged with keeping Spain glued together, though veteran character actor Edward Peel brings the character of Don Sebastian as vividly to life as he can. Similarly, the pivotal role of Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) would benefit from further dramatic explication. We are meant to believe in the unassailable bond between the older monarch and Isabella, his young second wife, until we somewhat abruptly are not. And though she occasionally demonstrates that she is savvy in matters of statecraft, the Queen is, at the same time, almost saintly in her perseverance and stoicism, which makes the character hard to parse.

The production began in the 350-seat Sam Wanamaker playhouse at the Globe Theatre in London. Considerable effort was made by designer Jonathan Fensom to retain the sense of closeness to the players in the subsequent transfer to the West End and now to Broadway.  Many conventions of “original practices” in period staging are retained, as candles are in abundant use, musicians play from a balcony, handsome costumes appear authentic to their time, furniture and props are carried on and off a fixed central playing space and glorious backdrops reminiscent of the historic theatre at Drottningholm handle the single change of location.  As an added bonus, the scenery on stage treatment merges well with the aesthetics of the theater itself, which extends the world of the play.

From the time we arrive in our seats it is clear that the audience will remain complicit in the action. We engage in chitchat with welcoming actors, some audience members are seated on stage and the house lights are never entirely dimmed. We are challenged to be completely present so that a transformation of our own becomes possible. This culminates in one scene in the play, when the king and company recognize us as onlookers at an open-air concert. The dissolving of the fourth wall becomes merely the next step in using the power of art to bring us more in tune with those around us and ourselves.

 

“Farinelli and the King” opened at the Belasco Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. 

Creative: Written by Claire van Kampen; Music arranged by Claire van Kampen; Musical Director: Robert Howarth; Directed by John Dove; Production Design by Jonathan Fensom; Lighting Design by Paul Russell; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates.

Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, Shakespeare’s Globe, Paula Marie Black, Tom Smedes, Peter Stern, Jane Bergère, Jane Dubin/Rachel Weinstein, 1001 Nights Productions, Elizabeth Cuthrell & Steven Tuttleman, Rupert Gavin, Robyn L. Paley, SGC USA,Tulchin Bartner Productions, Cindy & Jay Gutterman/Marc David Levine, Marguerite Hoffman/Van Kaplan and Shakespeare Road.

Cast: Colin Hurley, Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies, Huss Garbiya, Melody Grove, James Hall, Lucas Hall, Edward Peel, Mark Rylance.