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Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance (King Philippe) and Sam Crane (Farinelli) in Farinelli and the King. Photo: Tristram Kenton Mark Rylance and Sam Crane in Farinelli and the King. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This production has moments that are utterly transporting: the combination of the human voice at its most dizzyingly pristine and the glitter of candlelight is a heady one.

Written by Claire van Kampen, former musical director of Shakespeare’s Globe, the play tells of how Philippe V of Spain was roused from his deep melancholia by the glorious voice of Carlo Broschi, the man known to the world as Il Farinelli – the most famous castrato of his day, with a voice almost unearthly in its beauty.

Mark Rylance is typically nimble as Philippe, vulnerable yet also volatile. Capable of turning suddenly, his delivery of every line is perfectly weighted and shaded. Sam Crane, as Farinelli, gives a performance of delicacy and grace. John Dove’s production cleverly solves the problem of how to have him perform by having renowned countertenor Iestyn Davies step in when it is time for him to sing; the arias are skin-tingling and exquisite, and this doubling also poignantly highlights the division between the man Broschi and the star Il Farinelli.

There is so much to delight in here – not least the space itself, which is always a joy. Melody Grove gives a similarly rich performance as Philippe’s queen Isabella. Van Kampen’s play is in no way merely a platform for the music: it’s a rangy, intelligent piece, full of fireworking ideas about peace and healing, beauty and art, power and identity, as both men share a sense that there is something unnatural about the role in life they have been obliged to play.

Dates: February 11-March 8, PN February 20

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Transporting mix of nuanced performances and exquisite singing