Over the past few years, Mark Rylance has become a Broadway favourite in Shakespeare – as Olivia in Twelfth Night and as Richard III – and in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and he could well be heading back to the Big Apple in this exquisite play written by his wife, the composer and musicologist Claire van Kampen.
The show, in which Rylance plays the melancholic, bipolar 18th-century Spanish monarch Philippe V, who is sung to daily by the Michael Jackson of his day, the castrato Farinelli, premiered in February at the new candlelit Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe and has moved on to packed houses and uniform acclaim for a season at the intimate Duke of York’s.
Intimacy is of the essence, for the play is deceptively light and fragile. Rylance is at his most engagingly diffident and distracted – talking to his pet goldfish, ignoring affairs of state, not least a demand for the 1738 defence budget, and rounding on the enchanted audience with, “Who are these people, anyway?”
The cockpit effect of the Wanamaker isn’t exactly reproduced in John Dove’s perfectly judged production, but health and safety restrictions still allow for a blaze of ignited chandeliers, the descent of a heavily bewigged Farinelli from the theatre’s roof as if singing as an ethereal spirit in Monteverdi, scattering gold dust as he comes, and a few dozen spectators seated in stage boxes around Jonathan Fensom’s design of minstrels’ gallery and series of painted cloths representing the palace at Madrid and the forest at night-time – where Rylance punches holes in the sky to hear the music of the spheres.
This is a split personality play. Rylance is a different man when soothed by music. Farinelli – sung in Italian by one of three counter-tenors (primarily Iestyn Davies) and acted by Globe regular Sam Crane, the two men in identical costume – is loyal to the king but in love with his wife. That wife, Isabella, gorgeously played by Melody Grove, is torn between regal and domestic duty. And poor old flustered Metastasio, the famous librettist and theatre-owner (Colin Hurley), is at once devoted to Farinelli’s artistry, and its royal acknowledgement, but keener to make more money out of him.
Musicians in costume, playing violin, theorbo, baroque guitar, recorder, cello and bass are led from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, regaling us with delightful entr’acte and interlude music. Farinelli’s seven arias include one by the castrato’s teacher, the Neapolitan maestro Popora, another by Hasse and five by Handel, including three from Rinaldo. The most famous from the latter work, and one of the most sumptuously beautiful arias ever written, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” (“Let me weep”), is, ironically, commanded not by the king but by a tailor who encounters the singer many years after the king’s death and requests music as payment.
There’s a wonderful twist in the identity of this tailor. Suffice to say that the commercial agreement in music takes precedence, finally, over the sheer unadulterated joy of it. In real life, Farinelli never went back to the day job, but retired to his estates in Bologna, where he died in 1782, 36 years after the king. It’s the final delicious irony of both play and performance that the special, secret relationship between the two strange men, bound in music, is now exposed to, and shared with, a prying, paying audience.