There is something so very special when sitting in the theatre and the curtain comes up to reveal a world class actor the likes of Mark Rylance doing his thing. I honestly have to say he has no rival on the stage. And if the play he's in doesn't match his level of virtuosity, I can still sing its praises.
Music is actually at the center of the intriguing story of "Farinelli and the King," and it's based on a true one that is set in the early-18th Century. Rylance plays King Philippe of Spain, who was plagued by bouts of mental illness — likely bipolar disorder and manic depression — so severe that he was almost forced to abdicate.
The concerned Queen Isabella, on a trip to London, heard a performance by the famous castrato Farinelli, and instantly decided to bring him to Spain as a gift to her husband. Miraculously, Farinelli's magnificent voice had a curative effect on the ailing king, who seemed to thrive only in the singer's presence.
The two developed a symbiotic relationship to the point that Farinelli was willing to give up his renowned career for this audience of one. And that's how they stayed the rest of their lives.
The play, written by Rylance's wife Claire van Kampen, is most entertaining but principally as a vehicle for her husband, tapping into his bravura skills as both a comedian and tragedian.
The bonus here is the contribution of another tremendous talent: the voice of countertenor Iesten Davies, whose golden pipes approximate the incomparable sound of a castrato.
Directed by John Dove, it's graced with a dream production, expertly acted, and designed with exquisite authenticity by Jonathan Fensom. But while "Farinelli and the King" has the look and feel of a classic work, dramatically it falls short. This fascinating tale of kindred spirits certainly piques our interest, but it lacks a deeper exploration of the bizarre relationship that bonded them for life.
Thankfully, there's Mark Rylance — theatre royalty, and once again we bow to his God-given gifts.