Mark Rylance won an Oscar for Bridge of Spies and is a part of Dunkirk’s swarming ensemble, but it’s on the stage that he’s been the most memorable: The fiery and inventive thespian has won three Tonys—for his deadpan turn in the door-slamming comedy Boeing-Boeing, his volcanic one in the bold drama Jerusalem, and his female one in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
He gets another plum role as a Frenchman, King Philippe V of Spain, in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen (who’s Mrs. Rylance offstage). John Dove’s production itself is an eyeful, the cast working the stage before showtime—one actress even coming into the audience to schmooze and say “Thanks for joining us.”
As designed by Jonathan Fensom, the royal décor is gilt-edged and gorgeous, with side boxes for brave audience members who want to be adjacent to the action, and a balcony for the all-important musicians. Lighting designer Paul Russell provides six hanging candle chandeliers that help illuminate the proceedings, the costumes are in exquisite brocades, and there’s a pungent scent in the air that makes you feel like you’ve entered some throwback version of ABC Carpet & Home.
And Rylance? He’s playing a character that David Cote’s production notes says was beset by what’s now known as bipolar disorder. Addressing a catfish in a fishbowl, Rylance’s King is dotty, hilarious, and often on point with his observations, but he’s wallowing and deteriorating and definitely needs a lift. So Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) enlists Farinelli the castrato to do so with his famed high-pitched voice (which was horrifyingly attained when Farinelli’s brother mutilated him when he was 10 in order to keep him marketable.)
Two men play Farinelli: Sam Crane when he’s speaking (and trying to decide whether he wants to devote himself to seclusion), and Iestyn Davies when he’s singing, the latter reaching precise and beautiful sounds on a variety of Handel arias, one time doing so while floating down from the heavens and tossing glitter.
But Rylance is the main attraction, commanding the show with his supple wit, weirdness, and edge of danger as he tries to hold onto his elusive mind. Act II, alas, has less Rylance, though, in a woodsy setting, he does get to size up the audience and look for poachers, and Farinelli actually tries to get jiggy. (Yes, he’s able to fuck women. And yes, the word “fuck” is liberally used.)
The resulting play is both heady and nutty and definitely has balls (or ovaries).