Have I told you lately how much I love the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the beeswax-candle-lit trinket-box theatre that Shakespeare’s Globe carved out of its own foyer a year ago? It’s like you’re Queen Elizabeth – no, the Blackadder one – and have summoned top actors to come and perform in your living room. Which is surreal, because that’s what Farinelli and the King is all about: the ailing Philippe V, first of the Bourbon kings and an uneasy French implant to the Spanish throne invites the famous Italian castrato to sing to him nightly and soothe his bipolar depression.

It’s cosy in a very Wolf Hall sense: the King is played by Mark Rylance founding director of the Globe and Thomas-Cromwell-off-the-telly and the script written by his wife Claire van Kampen who is composer-in-residence at the Globe and historical musical advisor on the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s hefty novels.

Its mesmerising to watch Rylance up close: first discovered fishing in a goldfish bowl, his Philippe is by turns whimsical, wounded and wilful but always convincing and his mischievous behaviour and dark moods made accessible by van Kampen’s conversationally modern, comic and fourth-wall-breaking script. He’s flanked by Melody Grove as a charming and resourceful queen – although somewhat gentler and slimmer than the ambitious Isabella Farnese was in real life – and Sam Crane breathing warmth and intelligence into Farinelli whose story is a pained combination of abuse and fame.

Farinelli is voiced by the brilliant countertenor Iestyn Davies punctuating the action with arias including two from Rinaldo which was the first opera written specifically for the London stage and, in a nice parallel to the plot, by the court musician Handel who was imported by George I, first of the Hanoverian kings.  You don’t have to be an opera lover to wonder at these eerie, ethereal interludes in the play.

Truly, a box of delights.

 

This review written for Londonist.com