Farinelli and The King @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Celebrated composer/musical director Claire van Kampen makes her debut as playwright with a fascinating, poignant and at times very funny look back at Philippe V of Spain, the king of Spain whose struggles with depression were assisted by the soaring voice of the Maestro Farinelli, perhaps the greatest of the Castrati singers.

Mark Rylance turns in a mesmeric performance as the troubled monarch. When we first meet him, in his dressing gown clutching a fishing rod and simultaneously trying to catch a goldfish in its bowl while explaining to the creature that he cannot be mad and must in fact be dreaming. Rylance is hilarious and then, without warning slips into a deep and moving melancholy. He delivers every line with the utmost conviction, even chanelling an audience member’s dropped cup to segue into a direct-to-audience monologue!

Philippe is most definitely ill and yet all too aware that his ministers, represented by the scheming De la Cuedra (Edward Peel), plot to remove him from the throne. His wife embarks on a last-ditch attempt to cure him by enticing celebrated Castrato Farinelli to the court.

Van Kampen’s script dabbles in the history of the plot, Philippe mentions multiple times that he is Louis XIV’s Grandson and grew up in The Sun King’s shadow in Versailles. Wisely though, she never dwells too long in detail and concentrates instead on the curious relationship that blossoms between the singer and the sovereign. In a curious, though effective, twist Farinelli is played by two performers. Sam Crane reveals the truth of Carlo Broschi hidden behind his stage persona – the scene where he confesses he was castrated at ten by his own brother is particularly poignant, especially so as Philippe’s response is startlingly rational.

That is too old, and also too young for such brutality

When the façade is once again in place and Farinelli sings the audience are treated to Iestyn Davies’ stunning counter-tenor vocal.

Elsewhere Melody Grove’s delicate performance as the long-suffering Queen Isabella is the equal of Crane and Rylance.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with its cosy bench seats, small thrust stage and beeswax-candle lighting is the perfect setting to let this production – and particularly Rylance’s flawless performance – convince you of the healing power of music!


Matt has been writing on all manner of subjects for over 15 years. He has written for a number of music magazines, made appearances on BBC Introducing and regularly contributed to local newspapers. These days he mostly writes about theatre, but also enjoys covering sport, especially rugby.

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