What a superb venue the Belasco is for Farnelli and the King; an enjoyable piece of magic for theatergoers during this holiday season. It is a delightfully charming play based on the true-life story of 18th-century Spanish Monarch, King Phillipe V (1633-1746), by Claire Van Kampen from Shakespeare’s Globe. Lit mostly by candlelight and enhanced beautifully with adjunct golden bulbs a glow, the Belasco is transformed into a dazzling setting in the Kingdom of Spain. This is a tale of the unfortunate Spanish King who suffered from delusions (some conjecture he might have had bipolar disorder) who struggles to hold onto to his throne with the help of his beloved and loyal Queen Isabella Farnese, sympathetically played by Melody Grove. In her quest to save her husband’s mind, the queen, while in England, patronizes an opera and hears songbird Farnelli at a performance which impresses her enough to believe that he can give her husband’s mind and heart some equilibrium thru music. Listening to the singer’s exquisite countertenor voice trilling jewel tones will sooth the beast which bests the King. And truly it works, as the King not only responds but thrives happily on Farnelli’s gifts, alas not a cure for his disruptive and sometimes violent malody, but a balm to his senses, nevertheless. It is easy to imagine such a thing happening when drugs were not available.
Certainly, Iestyn Davies doppelganger to actor Sam Crane’s tender Farnelli spoiled the audience for any other countertenor they will ever hear. Mark Rylance’s guileless interpretation of King Phillipe proves to serve the suffering King by eliciting compassion and patience from the Queen, Farnelli, and even his craggy administrator Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (played by excellent character actor Edward Peel) who wants him to abdicate.
Farnelli and the King shows us that countries do survive mad Kings, but it will take more than music to aid ours.