For the past few months, the Duke of York’s Theatre on St Martin’s Lane has been transformed into the Sam Wanamaker’s West End outpost, housing Claire van Kampen’s acclaimed Farinelli and the King.
The play is a fictionalised account of a true set of events – Farinelli, a renowned castrato, is invited to sing for the King of Spain (Philippe V) in a bid to cure him of his depression. It may come as a surprise to learn that the healing power of music was a known concept in the 18th century, in fact the link between music & medicine goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks: Apollo was the god of both, after all.
Walking into the auditorium feels like you’re stepping back in time – it really is an immersive experience. This is further capitalised upon by having onstage seating on two levels, and some of the company walking around in period dress having conversations with the audience. The set is candlelit and manages to capture an intimacy you might not ordinarily find in a West End theatre.
There are some truly exquisite costumes, and I mean stunningly beautiful. My particular favourite is Farinelli’s gold coat that he wears when he goes to meet the King. Such intricate designs that really accentuate the historic atmosphere.
The play is wonderfully cast. It also has an ingenious way of incorporating singing; Farinelli sings seven arias in total, but it would be extremely hard work for someone to talk for two hours per performance on top of that, so the role is split into singing & acting. I was worried this could result in a terrible attempt at lip syncing by the actor, or that the arias would take the form of a performance and become detached from the piece as a whole. Thankfully it does no such thing! Farinelli transitions seamlessly from actor (Sam Crane) to singer (Iestyn Davies for my visit) and back to actor again – Davies quietly appears onstage as the music starts up and whilst he sings, Crane fades to the background surveying the scene.
Crane & Davies really are a fantastic pairing. The former has a real subtle touch, creating humorous and poignant moments with ease – and to great effect. Davies has an utterly astounding countertenor voice. He does do a little bit of acting as part of his role, but it’s all very organic and definitely enhances the handovers as well as the development of each aria. Without a doubt my favourite moment is saved until last: a reminiscing Farinelli finishing with Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Pianga. If it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes you have a heart of stone.
The other standout performance of course comes from Mark Rylance, as King Philippe V. It is a role that once again shows the genius of Rylance’s acting style; naturalistic to the point of underplaying it. He is not just playing the King, he is the King – in his highs & his lows, and with a wicked sense of comic timing to boot. On the reverse of that, his performance so easily creates pathos in the room that you can’t help but feel for him. He is adept at playing to the audience and drawing them into the show even more.
My verdict? A spectacle unlike anything you’ll have ever experienced, redefining what a night at the theatre can be.
Farinelli and the King runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 5 December. The only availability is through day seats (£10 for front stalls benches – available from 10am daily) or returns.