Monday, January 29, 2018

Farinelli and the King: Identity as a Straitjacket

Mark Rylance (with Melody Grove) in Farinelli and the King. (Photo: Marc Brenner and Simon Annand)

Farinelli and the King, currently on Broadway, marks the seventh time I’ve seen Mark Rylance on stage. In the play, written by his wife Claire van Kampen, he plays Spain’s King Philippe V – bipolar according to historical record but mad as a hatter in the stage version – who is cured, more or less, when his second wife, Isabella (Melody Grove) persuades the gifted castrato singer Carlo Farinelli (Sam Crane) to abandon his London career and move to the Spanish court in Madrid. Rylance may be the funniest comic actor I’ve ever seen live (in the all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, where he played Olivia, in David Hirson’s La Bête, and especially in Matthew Warchus’s 2008 production of the farce Boeing-Boeing), but I’m not always as enthusiastic when I see him in straight roles. He was certainly effective in a supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, for which he won an Oscar last March, but the problem with his grandiose, scenery-chewing “straight” appearances, as Richard III (which he played in rep along with Twelfth Night) or as Philippe V, is that if you see several of them you get hip to his trademark affects – the stuttering, the interpolated “uhs” and “ums,” the brusquely cut-off phrases, the flattening out of questions so they sound like statements of fact, the deliberate end-line drops, and so on. Part of Rylance’s vocal genius is that he’s witty enough to employ for ironic effect what would be merely bad habits in most actors, like the end-line drops and refusal to put question marks at the end of questions, but what can be endlessly amusing in a comedian can become tiresome in a dramatic actor. And I’m afraid that, early in Farinelli and the King, I ran out of patience for his bag of tricks.

Plays that explore the madness of monarchs are generally better on paper than they turn out to be on stage (cf Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George), but Farinelli and the King has hold of an interesting dramatic idea. What unifies Philippe and Farinelli is their resistance against their proscribed roles, which they think of as separate identities that don’t reflect who they truly are. Philippe finds kingship an intolerable burden, and Farinelli speaks in the third person of the London celebrity he has been since his brother castrated him at ten – a notion that the play picks up by having a singer (I saw James Hall, who alternates with Iestyn Davies) stand next to Crane to deliver his arias. When he performs for Philippe, he offers his vocal talents out of friendship, and when, on a whim, the king moves them, along with Isabella, to the countryside and insists on al fresco concerts, he no longer feels like a famous opera singer; the relocation liberates him. And then he falls in love with the queen, though his feelings for him, which she reciprocates, confuse her because, unlike Farinelli or her husband, she’s comfortable in her own role, as Philippe’s wife and caregiver and moral support. The play is a Pirandellian meditation on identity, though it’s only Pirandello lite, and van Kampen, a composer and musician whose first drama this is, is clumsy when it comes to dramaturgy. Sometimes you don’t get the point of a scene while it’s going on; you have to work it out afterwards, usually from context. And the transitions aren’t always worked through.

Van Kampen’s has a more serious shortcoming as a playwright: her characters are really only ideas for characters. The king seems to be more sketched-in than either Farinelli and Isabella, but it may be that, however limiting Rylance’s arsenal of tricks, it permits him to fill in what van Kampen has left out. Crane and Grove are attractive and appealing but what you mostly get from the characters they’re playing is a shared tentativeness, which doesn’t get the actors very far. Simon Jones (as John Rich, Farinelli’s London manager) and Edward Peel (as La Cuadra, the king’s minister) add some color to their scenes. The music is gorgeous. John Dove’s production is lavish, with sets and costumes by Jonathan Fensom and wildly extravagant wigs by Campbell Young Associates; my favorite is Peel’s, which looks like the headdress John Tenniel gave the Duchess in his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As with the transplanted Globe versions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, Farinelli and the King modifies the traditional interplay of actors and audience by having some audience members seated on the stage and the actors chatting to people in the first few rows of the orchestra before the play begins – which, as usual, feels forced and doesn’t have anything to do with the play. Based on what Tim Carroll (who directed that wonderful Twelfth Night) is doing as artistic director at the Shaw Festival, I guess we’re in for a lot more of this kind of nonsense before the pendulum swings again.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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