traditionally make for good theatre, so for Farinelli and the King, the first new play to be written for the Swanamaker, Claire van Kampen - better known as a composer - turns to 18th century Madrid and Philippe V, a grandson of Louis XVI of France installed, possibly to his own surprise, as King of Spain. He turns out to be a good monarch, but much of his business is war, which takes a mental toll on him. A bout of depression and paranoia sees him withdraw from human company and his duties, becoming obsessed with the passing of time. When we first meet Philippe (Mark Rylance) he's been awake all night fishing in a goldfish bowl, and berating the clocks for all showing slightly different times. For De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) this is an opportunity to have the king quietly shipped away and rule in his stead, but his doctor (Huss Garbiya) has one last ditch-plan.
Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) is sent to convince the most famous castrato of the time, Carlo Farinelli (Sam Crane,) to sing privately for the king. It works, in the short term, Farinelli's voice giving Philippe the first thing he's wanted to live for in a long time.
Rylance is always a big draw, and this most intimate setting to see him in comes just as his profile, and so presumably demand, is at its highest thanks to Wolf Hall. He doesn't disappoint, his Philippe is instantly endearing and vulnerable, but with a dangerous edge of unpredictability that comes with the knowledge that, as a king, his mad whims could have major consequences.
But although written, presumably with Rylance in mind, by his real-life wife, Farinelli and the King isn't a one-man show. Crane plays Farinelli as jittery and timid, but with a surprising libido for someone without any balls. His arias are sung by a professional countertenor (Iestyn Davies, alternating with William Purefoy,) and aside from the practicality of having someone who can approximate the castrato's unnatural range, this double casting is thematically apt as well - it turns out the superstar singer hates the opera houses he normally has to perform in, and can only do it by mentally disconnecting himself from his voice. Meanwhile Grove gets to play a woman powerfully determined on two fronts - as a wife trying to do right by her husband, and as a queen who, being the second wife, has not yet got the public's love and thinks opera might be the answer.
John Dove's production has plenty of charm, but after a surprisingly restrained staging in the first act it really comes into its own in the second, as it embraces the Swanamaker's particular dynamic between actors and audience when Farinelli's private performance for the king unexpectedly turns into a public event for the residents of a small village. In its first year of existence, the theatre's main use apart from plays has been for intimate concerts, and this particular scene best brings both together in a celebration of music uniting people. It's a strong evening altogether, but this particularly magical moment is surely the one it'll be remembered for.
Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen is booking in repertory until the 8th of March at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.