When Mark Rylance hits the stage, he can be anyone. On Broadway, the Tony Award and Oscar winner has been a daredevil motorcyclist in the fast-paced play Jerusalem, and he’s brought classical Shakespeare to life for new audiences in works like Twelfth Night and Richard III. In his latest return to the Manhattan stages, he brings to life 18th century Spanish King Philippe V in Claire van Kampen’s new work, Farinelli and the King.
This King of Spain is a complicated character who requires a lot of explanation — yet he’s still drastically misunderstood. He is a real historical figure, but the playwright took creative liberties in making him the lovable star of this off-beat drama, set to enchanting period-appropriate live music. When we meet the character, he is overcome with “madness.”
Though he’s an active monarch who oversees a kingdom on the brink of war, Philippe is practically bedridden with mental illness. His insomnia renders him unable to distinguish day from night. The royal court wants him to abdicate the throne as they deem him unfit to rule, but he refuses to trust his important duties to anyone else — even his own heirs. He’s distrustful and unpredictable, and can lash out at any moment. In modern times, we may be able to diagnose him with an untreated type of bipolar disorder. But given the era he’s living in, doctors know little about what they can do to help him.
Through all of this, King Philippe does not appear unhappy. He is content to talk to his pet goldfish, imagine ways to jump into the scenes of his wall art, and tend to his vegetable garden. He cracks witty jokes that light up the audience. What fills him with rage and anxiety is that no one around him understands what he’s going through: not his wife Isabella (Melody Grove), not the council, and not his empire — who would interpret his actions as crazy. The only one who can transport the king out of his illness is Farinelli (Sam Crane), a world-renowned opera singer who is brought to the palace, initially to lift the ruler’s spirits through his beautiful voice.
Farinelli and the king strike up an unlikely friendship: one that is mutually beneficial and deeper than anyone around them knows. Not only does listening to the performer’s arias temporarily lift Philippe out of his depression (for enough time to get his “old self” back for a moment), but the two personalities have much in common. Farinelli has the voice of an angel and by anyone else’s estimation “should” be traveling the world and performing to sold-out arenas, but it’s not the life he wanted for himself. It echoes the king’s struggles: he’s a monarch who “should” be signing off on important documents, but it’s a duty that is consuming him.
The true beauty of this production lies in the scenery and staging: when you enter the theater, you genuinely believe you have taken a step into the king’s bed chamber, lit only by authentic candelabras and decorated with larger-than-life royal portraits. And when you hear the Baroque guitar, harpsichord, violas, and other period instruments blended with the operatic vocals, you will see how the king could — even momentarily — see through the clouds of mental illness.
If you go: Farinelli and the King is running now through March 25 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York City. For a taste of the performance, be sure to check out the preview videos and cast interviews below.