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Farinelli and the King Misses the High Notes
I walked into the Belasco Theatre Saturday night with high hopes. I was there to see Farinelli and the King, a new play starring Mark Rylance, and directed by the venerable stage director John Dove. And my high hopes weren't unfounded: in addition to its star power, Shakespeare's Globe in London is presenting this Broadway production, and my own mother has been raving about the apparently giant talent of Mark Rylance for years (before this show I had never seen Mr. Rylance on stage, or on screen). The show is about the castrato (a castrated male singer) Farinelli (played by Sam Crane), the most famous opera singer of his day, and how his singing voice helped heal Phillipe V, the disturbed King of Spain (played by Rylance). This fusion of opera, theatre, European royalty, and Broadway royalty excited me, and had me enter the theatre with great curiosity.
And the first impression did not disappoint. Before the show starts, you enter the theatre, and the curtain is up. On stage, chandeliers with glowing candles illuminate a vast, Baroque set complete with dark wood and opulent gold ornaments. Audience members are seated right on stage, and in balconies placed high above the audience. An excellent Baroque ensemble sits above the players in elegant wigs and sumptuous period costumes, strumming away on fine wooden instruments. The set designer Jonathan Fensom, and lighting designer Paul Russell transport you to an elegant, European palace with their designs, and they deserve every award in New York for their work.
The play itself did not impress me as much. The problem lies with Mark Rylance's portrayal of the king. Rylance turns in a rather flat interpretation of Phillipe V; he plays the king without charm, warmth, or any redeeming qualities. Instead of facing his illness with humor and bravery, Rylance just seems irritated, and self-centered. This lack of likability is a big problem for the play, because the play's central conflict is about the king trying to get better through the healing power of music. If the audience doesn't care about the character, we are not invested in his struggle: the play thus loses the audience's attention.
Rylance's lack of likability affects the story in other ways. For instance, there is no love or warmth between Rylance and his wife, Queen Isabella (played by Melody Grove); they are not believable as a couple. This lack of believability becomes a problem when Queen Isabella goes to England twice to convince Farinelli to come to Madrid to sing for the King. Because the couple doesn't seem in love, I have a hard time believing that Queen Isabella would so much as walk down the street to help out her ailing husband, so it is preposterous that she goes all the way to England (on a boat, no less) to help cure him. Although issues in their marriage are exposed in the second act, it is hard to believe two married people have absolutely no affection for one another.
John Dove's poor direction also hurts the play. A lot of the play's humor, and witty lines fall flat, because John Dove fails to embrace the script's broad comedy, and the eccentric, large personalities of its characters. Instead of embracing the script's campiness, Dove directs the actors to deliver what should be witty banter in a drab, normal sort of way. For crying out loud, the actors are in wigs and colorful period costume; it is not the time to be subtle. The pacing of the dialogue is also too slow, and the script loses much of its sparkle and bite as a result.
The play also suffers from the bizarre directorial choice of having an onstage singer sing for the actor playing Farinelli. This choice does work nicely in a couple of scenes: it captures Farinelli's feeling of separation between his onstage persona and his true self. But in the majority of the scenes, the choice feels awkward. It is uncomfortable to watch a random person in a matching costume sing for the actor playing Farinelli. Lip-syncing is one thing, but imagine watching Britney Spears perform as someone else standing right next to her sang for her. It was weird.
Sam Crane's acting, however, almost makes this odd directorial choice forgivable. He turns in a fine performance as the castrato Farinelli, capturing character's pain, and isolation with his deep, sensitive blue eyes. Crane has a quiet power in the role of Farinelli; he does not chew scenery, but rather lets the audience in with his openness, and sensitive nature. Crane has some of the show's finest moments. Throughout the show, Farinelli talks about the fear, pain, and isolation that come with fame and success. He tells stories about fruit being thrown at him on stage, and how he feels completely removed from the great talent that he possesses. Farinelli's moments of vulnerability are the real highlights of the show, and Crane delivers Claire Van Kampen's touching words with a lovely tenderness.
Some of the other performances were not as strong. Melody Grave is miscast as Queen Isabella. She completely lacks the presence and noble bearing of a European Queen. She also lacks the fire, and chutzpah of an Italian woman living in a Spanish palace. One feels that the production team could have found a better Isabella. But I hesitate to blame the actors of this show too much. Although the script had its moments, I found some major errors with it. For instance, the show’s central conflict is resolved too quickly. There is too little struggle; the King is mostly healed after the first time he hears Farinelli. The thrill of plays/movies like Farinelli involving transformation (i.e. My Fair Lady, The King’s Speech) is in watching the transformation’s process. It is fun to watch Eliza Doolittle start her studies with Henry Higgins, fail at speaking the Queen’s English, and then have a resounding success towards the end of the first act. Because of the main conflict’s quick resolution, we see no such process between the singer and the King. A second conflict is introduced in the second act, but it is only mentioned briefly and feels like a last-minute addition.
The playwright also could have played up the campiness of the show’s period. Bigger and more exciting scenarios, stakes, and details about the characters would have benefited the show. John Dove’s direction did not help the script, but some more fireworks in the writing might have improved the story. Nowadays, it seems that playwrights and directors alike are afraid of doing theatre that is seen as over the top, or melodramatic. Being “subtle,” or “understated” is what’s now in vogue. While I do enjoy subtlety in plays, it does not work when applied to every genre, show, or character, and Farinelli is a classic example of this perpetual problem I am often seeing in the American Theatre.
I wanted this show to be so much better than it was. It has the makings of a great production, but ultimately fails to deliver. I would be curious to see if the show would improve with a different cast, a different director, or even a script revision. Shows can sometimes improve drastically if just one or two elements are changed. And there is hope: lots of shows’ premieres, and even first few productions are not successful the first time around. The Seagull by Anton Chekov had a disastrous first premiere. And it took the opera La Bohème a couple different productions to earn the popularity that it enjoys today. Maybe in future productions, Farinelli and the King will surprise us.