By Claire Van Kampen
Directed by John Dove

Image: Mark Rylance as King Philippe (Credit: Marc Brenner)

When the peaks and troughs of what has since been diagnosed as bipolar disorder in King Philippe of 18th-century Spain became too much to bear, his wife Isabella went to London and fetched Farinelli. Whether this showed extraordinary forward thinking in her understanding of the power of music, or whether it was simply an act of desperation: a last-ditch attempt; it worked.

Claire Van Kampen’s debut play, Farinelli and the King, is currently playing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: the Globe’s indoor Jacobean theatre. With Mark Rylance in the role of the troubled monarch, and Farinelli sung by Iestyn Davies, there was a great deal to recommend this production from the start – and it doesn’t disappoint.

Rylance’s King Philippe is spectacularly engaging: vulnerable, yet canny, quick witted and shameless. He is endearingly lost, and even when flashes of cruelty emerge in the writing, we instantly forgive him because we feel we understand, somehow, something that the characters around him do not. The audience first meets him fishing in a goldfish bowl, impressed and moved by the goldfish’s refusal to take his bait. His performance is completely perfect for the intimate space of the playhouse and the king’s mental state flickers like the candles which light his stage.

Sam Crane takes the speaking role of Farinelli: displaying a similarly touching vulnerability which beautifully explains the sense of kindred spirit which led the superstar castrato to remain at the Spanish court for the rest of the king’s life. However, the music – several arias and bursts of song from Rinaldo and other sources – is sung by Iestyn Davies.

While in part presumably a practical decision, this conceit helps the audience to see the two Farinellis in their true state: the vulnerable schoolboy not-quite-grown-up, and the public figure he portrayed in order to survive. The result is an understanding offered for a decision which may otherwise seem extraordinary: to break a contract to sing for Handel and settle long-term for a private audience of two. Davies’ singing trills aptly into the space, but the descriptions in Van Kampen’s writing are so vivid that I did find myself wishing to hear what a real castrato sounded like.

The production is a glimpse into the world of the castrati, a humbling reminder of the ability music has to soothe a troubled mind, and a fantastic opportunity to see the versatility of this jewellery box theatre as an intimate and moving home for both drama and music.

Farinelli and the King is running at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 8 March; for more information, and to book tickets, visit