Celebrity Castrato Hits The High Notes On West End Transfer

Farinelli and the King at Duke of York's Theatre ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 33 months ago
Celebrity Castrato Hits The High Notes On West End Transfer Farinelli and the King at Duke of York's Theatre 4
Mark Rylance as King Philippe V of Spain in Farinelli and the King © Simon Annand

Farinelli and the King started life in February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a venue that proves particularly adept at fusing theatre and music. It was so successful that it has now transferred to the Duke of York’s, and it survives the transition to the West End very well. The theatre is, in fact, made to feel like the play’s former home to the point at which it looks as if one end of the Sam Wanamaker, complete with gallery and seating, has been inserted into the stage area.

Set in the eighteenth century, Claire van Kampen’s play tells of the relationship between King Philippe V of Spain (Mark Rylance on typically superb form) and the famous castrato Farinelli (Sam Crane) as the latter’s voice helps to nurse the tormented monarch back to health and to sooth his soul.

On its own it may not be a vintage play, although the interactions between the pair can be highly moving as both, in the words of the King, have been elevated to unnatural positions. Philippe was merely appointed King of Spain by his grandfather Louis XIV of France, while Farinelli was thrust into the limelight following his cruel castration at the age of ten. The play is also not lacking in themes as the second act explores the relative merits of society and nature, as well as the virtues of opera itself. Does it merely constitute story and song or is it about so much more?

Its real revelation, however, lies in its employment of music. A first rate ensemble, directed by Robert Howarth, plays arias by Handel, Porpora and Hasse while Farinelli is given ample opportunity to display his vocal talents. The European Convention on Human Rights prevents an entirely authentic portrayal of his voice, but across the run Farinelli the singer is being played by three countertenors, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Enticknap and Owen Willetts. Davies (performing the night that we went) is a world class singer and never puts a foot wrong in his arias as he embellishes them with the type of ornaments that castrati may originally have applied to them. Crane tends to remain on stage while Davies sings which works perfectly because Farinelli explains that he never understands where his voice comes from, while Philippe is left to feel as if a divine being has just graced their presence.

Until 5 December at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG. For tickets (£10-95) visit the Farinelli the play website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 06 October 2015