A little history before the review: Philip V of Spain apparently was a sex addict. He was also very catholic, so he was torn between the lust for his wife and the guilt of experiencing such lust. His first wife died after four pregnancies, having been just14 when married to him. He had to be pried off her dying body. His second wife, Elizabeth Farnese, ruled him and Spain through his sexual needs. But even she was at a loss when manic depression kicked in – he abdicated in favor of his son until the young man died of small pox. Philip took the crown again, but his depression was severe. Elizabeth tried to interest him in music and for a while a semi normal life was resumed. The king worked at night, slept by day during a manic phase of his illness. This lasted a few months. Depression took over again until he one night said he felt like vomiting. His tongue was swollen and turned dark and he died, officially from a stroke.
Philip’s interest in music, the means that had him lead an almost normal life, is where the play starts. We are introduced to his court and to his mood when the king tries to fish a goldfish from a glass bowl. He seems to have intimate conversations with the fish as well.
What intrigued me most this early into the play was the marvellous proscenium stage that was lit by dozens of real candles and had audience members sitting in the boxes on the side, in front of the musicians on the first floor and in the first three rows up front. I got the feeling I was actually in a baroque theatre and it was glorious. The smell of candle wax was new and added to the experience.
Philip (the brilliant Mark Rylance) is only roused from his depression when his wife manages to bring the world’s most famous singer of the time, Farinelli, to court. His voice, the clear light yet powerful notes of a castrato, does what doctors of the time couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do: bring him out of his melancholy and have him rule again.
It is Rylance’s self deprecating dry wit that makes his part so outstanding. He is the frustrated, guilt ridden, sex and peace wanting man who needs music to reconnect with life, to stop the voices in his mind, to keep him from howling in desperation.
Farinelli is played by two men – a brilliant solution: first there is Carlo Broschi, the man who has a deep compassion for the ailing king, who keeps him company when no one else does and who simply talks to him, even about his castration at 10 through his brother. Sam Crane plays him and he is good looking and charming as he falls in love with the queen. And then there’s Farinelli, his other self, the divine singer who mesmerises even uneducated peasants with his three octave range – played by Rupert Enticknap. The counter tenor has indeed the voice of an angel (even though musicologists don’t believe that a counter tenor sounds all that much like a castrato. Good for him I say!) and makes it believable that this first form of musical therapy actually had the desired effect.
When the king finally dies, Farinelli’s influence is gone. Decades hidden away in the king’s castle in Spain have hurt his career, so even when his brother asks him to come back on his stage (influenced by the widowed queen) he refuses, only lifting his incognito life to a servant who had seen him sing for the king some 25years ago. But Farinelli’s life in the light is over….
The play is a brilliant historic glimpse in contemporary English, domineered by the skills of Rylance and the magical voice ofEnticknap. Together with the authentic stage it created a glittering bubble full of sarcasm and truth and wit and three lives – the king, the queen and the singer – entangled in each other’s emotions, helplessly captured with no way out. A brilliant play, a must see and a joy at the stage door, where it turned out that incredibly talented Enticknap not only speaks German but will star in Berlin next year. Good to know!