How good an actor is Mark Rylance? He’s so good that, as the saying goes, he could read the phone book and still be entertaining. The three-time Tony winner is currently playing the depressed 18th-century Spanish monarch Philippe V in Farinelli and the King at the Belasco Theatre.
Written by Claire van Kampen, who based it on historical records, it’s a fascinating story and provides Rylance with a plum role in which to flex his prodigious acting muscles.
Philippe was the grandson of France’s King Louis XIV, who made the 17-year-old the king of Spain in 1700. Apparently, Philippe suffered from what we now call bipolar disorder. He would lie in bed for days at a time, play with clocks, and stare out the window.
Beginning in 1728, he worked at night and slept during the day. There was plenty of reason for the people around him to question his sanity and to seek to remove him from power. “You want to get rid of me,” he says early in the play. “You think I’m mad.”
A golden voice
Despite his unusual behavior, Philippe remained king for almost 50 years. His Italian-born second wife, Isabella (Melody Grove), helped him hold onto the throne. In the play, she hears the renowned castrato Farinelli sing in London and persuades him to return to Madrid to sing for the king. Philippe is so enraptured by Farinelli’s unearthly voice that his spirits lift and he is able to function again.
Van Kampen, the founding director of theatre music at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, aims to show the incredible healing power of music. Farinelli’s remarkable voice worked wonders on the unstable Philippe and seemingly prolonged his reign.
Actor Sam Crane plays Farinelli, while countertenor Iestyn Davies provides his ethereal voice. One might think that this would make for awkward staging, but director John Dove makes it seem surprisingly natural. Crane reveals Farinelli’s human side: in van Kampen’s telling, he doesn’t get pleasure from hitting dazzling high notes or from becoming internationally famous.
Meanwhile, Davies uses his extraordinary voice to give a good idea of what Farinelli sounded like. Farinelli’s family had him castrated at age 10 to preserve his angelic voice; Davies has a very high singing voice that is not the result of surgery.
Accompanied by musicians playing in an upper gallery, Davies sings a number of Handel arias. Even if one isn’t familiar with Baroque music, Davies and the musicians convey its haunting beauty. Rylance wordlessly shows Philippe’s worries melt away as he falls under the spell of the soothing music. Jonathan Fensom’s set and Paul Russell’s lighting, which include plenty of candlelight, enhance the mood.
The play always holds our attention. The only minor problem is that Philippe’s language occasionally sounds too contemporary. Rylance makes us feel for this unhappy, somewhat unhinged king and also manages to get big laughs from minor jokes and bits of business. For anyone who saw Rylance on Broadway in Twelfth Night or Boeing-Boeing, his mastery of physical comedy comes as no surprise.
Of course, the actor has been equally brilliant in darker theater roles like Richard III and “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem. The part of Philippe, written for Rylance by van Kampen, who is his wife, doesn’t require him to transform himself nearly as much.
An actor in his prime
In films like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Rylance displayed a quieter, more introspective side; he won an Academy Award for his performance in the former. More film roles would provide a larger audience, but Rylance is most at home on stage.
His fans will want to catch him in Farinelli and the King, which runs at the Belasco through March 25. Those with money may want to book tickets to London to see him play one of Shakespeare’s great villains, Iago in Othello, next fall.
Farinelli and the King is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. For tickets call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.