Cutting through the cacophony of coughs that is a New York City theater during flu season is no easy task, and yet that’s precisely what Iestyn Davis does in Farinelli and the King. The countertenor’s smooth notes travel through the audience’s sniffles and hacks with the ease of the Lord parting the Red Sea, and like the promise of a new land found beyond a place of suffering they take us to the territory of bliss. It’s that famed place where all artists dream to guide their audiences towards, where empathy and kindness rule because they simply can’t not exist. It’s telling that in the play Farinelli’s legendary voice (Davis’) comes from a different actor than the one who plays his “speaking” parts (Sam Crane), for the question at the center of the show is precisely: how can flawed human beings create things of such beauty?
By turning Farinelli into a man disembodied from his voice, playwright Claire van Kampen deals with the separation of art and artist, a topic that’s been at the forefront of the public conversation in the last quarter of 2017. The conundrum isn’t new, but it becomes even more timely when it’s positioned against art’s power to heal. The play focuses on Farinelli’s residency in the Spanish court where he was summoned by Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) to help depressed King Philippe V (Mark Rylance) rediscover the purpose of life. Worried that he’s become far too famous for his own good, Farinelli finds a new purpose when he devotes himself to becoming this Emperor’s own personal nightingale.
Does a King who’s despised by his people have the right to rob the world of an artist who gives them pleasure? Does the artist himself have the right to choose who enjoys his gift? Watching the mad Philippe talk to a goldfish and make decisions that hurt his subjects can’t help but make one think of the current American commander-in-chief, a man who has declared a war on beauty and reason. Does a man like him have the right to be healed by art? Can art even heal him for that matter? In one of the play’s strangest, most effective scenes, the King breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. In that moment we are meant to believe we’re in the 18th century and Philippe calls out to the peasants and prostitutes he spots from the stage. It’s a moment that makes the audience giggle as they feel accomplices in the lush drama that’s been unfolding before their eyes, but more than this, it’s one of the play’s rare moments of clarity, when the playwright grabs the bull by the horns.
Structurally, the plays leaves much to be desired, as it’s unsure of what it wants to accomplish. It shifts in tone, goes from being an old fashioned court melodrama, to becoming a silly operetta, a historical recreation, and a Thoreau-inspired essay on the importance of nature, but it poses questions that make it feel like a much more well rounded project than it is. Rylance is, as usual, having the time of his life on that stage, he gives King Philippe as many tics, mannerisms and quirks as he can fit into two and a half hours, but there is also a sense of childlike wonder in his scenes with Farinelli that make us ponder on fate and how these two men from such different walks of life end up together.
Crane does more than turn Farinelli into either a tortured artist or a complete hedonist, unlike the play he’s in, the actor understands nobody should exist in extremes. Even if he doesn’t do his own singing (watch the grace with which he moves to the side whenever Davis appears to perform) the actor’s expressive eyes evoke soulful arias. Crane makes Farinelli’s appeal become tangible, we understand why someone would want to put him in a gilded cage, and also why he would feel he deserves to stay there. It’s a performance full of soul in a play that favors surface.