Farinelli and the King is a delicious 18th century confection of words and music that provides a perfect vehicle for Mark Rylance's first appearance on the candlelit stage of the Sam Wanamaker theatre at Shakespeare's Globe. From the moment he appears in a dream-like state, talking to a goldfish in a bowl, Rylance dominates the evening effortlessly.
Written by his wife Claire van Kampen, the Globe's first musical director, it tells the story of the famous Italian castrato Farinelli's long therapeutic relationship with the French-born Spanish king Felipe V, a man whose serious mental troubles were soothed by music. Rylance, whose streak of eccentricity informs all his roles, is a natural fit for the king and lends the part a deep humanity. This is a man who knows he is mentally ill but cannot understand the effect his illness is having on others, especially his sympathetic wife Isabella (well played by Melanie Grove).
Farinelli is acted by Sam Crane and sung by the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, whose arias give the evening a magical touch. The Sam Wanamaker theatre, which has already revived its co-production with the Royal Opera House of Ormindo, is fast becoming London's spiritual home for baroque music.
As a playwright, van Kampen has used her imagination to beef up what is basically a thin storyline. Farinelli is poached by Isabella away from his glittering operatic career to come to Madrid and sing to her husband. He can't cure his bipolar disorder, but his singing alleviates it, and Felipe's health improves intermittently. The play has stylistic echoes of Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George and Peter Shaffer's Amadeus -- two cracking models to follow for any playwright -- but lacks the sense of acute conflict that makes these two dramatic masterpieces. It's a bit soft in the centre. Like Salieri after hearing Mozart, the queen exclaims 'Before I heard him sing I thought it was impossible to perceive divinity in this world'. The difference with Shaffer's famous play is that while Salieri's praise for Mozart is deeply conflicted and bound up with a complex mixture of hatred and jealousy, Isabella's words lack any ambiguity or subtext.
The story of Farinelli is padded out by a pastoral interlude in the second act, in which the audience becomes an imaginary crowd of local peasants sitting on the ground in a forest to hear Farinelli sing for the king, who is happy to have escaped from Madrid and seems to be embracing green back-to-nature ideas, to the horror of his chief minister. The scene allows Rylance to break through the fourth wall and do what he does best -- interact with the audience. There's a brief moment in which the queen and Farinelli are drawn together by an illicit kiss, but it falls short of being a pivot for the play. Farinelli decides to leave, but when the king pleads with him to stay in Spain, he unpacks his bags and remains. That's it, pretty much.
The part of Farinelli seems to me under-written and less vivid than those of the king and queen and the other minor characters. I don't think it's entirely Sam Crane's fault that he doesn't have much to bite on in terms of character, and his words are inevitably overshadowed by the singing of his double. Rylance, inevitably, has most of the best lines, and the odd scabrous joke.