Of Kings, Music and Glorious Illusion


Of kings, music and the power to create illusion, wherein the blogger, quoting a commercial from the 1970’s ad campaign, asks “Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?,” and then delves into the categories of reality and illusion thanks to having been audience to the Broadway production of Farinelli And The King this past Friday evening (remember Nor’easter #1?), March 2, 2018 and thanks to today (a mere 5 days later) being a snow day due to Nor’easter #2.

I’m definitely dating myself by alluding to the ancient Memorex commercial advertising a medium that doesn’t even exist anymore (the cassette tape), but I couldn’t resist given the subject matter of today’s post: theater that dares audiences to cross, or at least consider, the divide between reality and illusion.

Farinelli And The King, written and directed by Claire van Kampen, and starring Mark Rylance (an acting wonder) as the King, and both the actor, Sam Crane, and the countertenor, Iestyn Davies, as Farinelli, touched my soul. But not, perhaps, in the way that it is being advertised. Don’t get me wrong. The play is powerful theater for many reasons, including its exploration of the ability of music to heal. A quick synopsis of the play: it takes place in the 18th century and it revolves around the relationship between the king of Spain, Philippe V, grandson to Louis XIV. During his reign, King Philippe V suffered lengthy and debilitating bouts of madness except, apparently, when he heard the castrato opera performer, Farinelli, sing various opera arias which provided a kind of cure. While the exploration of music’s power to heal is glorious (what’s not to like about a play that incorporates nine gorgeous Handel arias sung by a countertenor and accompanied by baroque instruments, including harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, baroque guitar and theorbo), to my mind, what was more invigorating and what I was captivated (almost literally) by, was the play’s exploration of the porous boundary between reality and illusion.

And there are lots of moments that tease us to test that boundary between reality and illusion. Yes, King Philippe, as translated by the actor Mark Rylance, has a hard time distinguishing between what is “really” happening and what is happening in his mind. For example, he certainly seems convinced, when we first see him at the start of the play, that the goldfish in the bowl he holds is really talking back to him. But, then again, so does the audience seem worriedly convinced that perhaps that same goldfish is actually killed because, surely, when the goldfish that looked to be really swimming around in the bowl is thrown out together with the water in order to put out an imagined fire, it is killed in the performance?!?! But then again surely there must be rules against such things and surely this is a bit of theater magic because when I think back, surely, Rylance the actor, switched out bowls when he threw the water, goldfish and all, at his queen. It is moments like these, the continuous reminders of the ways in which theater, like madness, collapses the boundary between reality and illusion, that make the play really interesting to me. I LOVE when plays, purporting to be telling the truth, go out of their way not to tell the truth in order to remind us of just how steeped in theatricality and illusion they are. Because then we are reminded of just how difficult it is to tell which reality is right and which is wrong.

Perhaps this is why I’m particularly irritated by the number of reviewers who, not very helpfully, complain that the play which deals with historical figures, isn’t accurate or real enough because a countertenor can’t actually attain the voice of a castrato (so what, we shouldn’t try to ask audiences to imagine the unattainable past, and where is it written that only the voice of a castrato is the kind of music that can heal?!) or that the 21st century van Kampen’s verse can’t actually match the verse of a Shakespeare who is closer to the 17th century than van Kampen is, or that the modernisms (a character complains that everyone wants “a piece of” Farinelli) incorporated in the script are a bit too jarring. I’m irritated because the reviewers, though they know that what they are reviewing is theater, seem to be irritated that this play about historical characters isn’t historical or real enough when it is clear from the get-go that this play has no intention of presenting itself as “real” though it is about very real things. For one thing not an actor onstage including the actor performing the part of Don Sebastian de la Cuadra is Spanish, nor do their accents try to convince us that they are since the accents are Brit to the core. There are nods to Spaniard heritage, sure, but only in the form of clichéd mannerisms, such as when Don Sebastian tries to dance a Spanish dance that is clearly pastiche, or Spanish-style dress, like the high comb in a woman’s hair with scarf draped over it. These elements, however, do nothing so much as remind us that the actors are playing parts and are not at all actual Spaniards (nor for that matter was Philippe since he hailed from France). Nor is this actually the 18th century, meticulously created 18th century costumes notwithstanding. It is a play, and though plays often try to create the illusion of reality, it is always just that, illusion, no matter how real the appearance (like the “real” goldfish flying out of the goldfish bowl).

Stay tuned to the next post, wherein the blogger continues her demonstration of just how wonderfully and knowingly theatrical and illusory Farinelli And The King is.


3 thoughts on “Of Kings, Music and Glorious Illusion

  1. I’m looking forward to your next blog on this play. I love the allure of two figures that are rather mythical in our modern era with the mad king and the castrato.
    It makes me wonder whether the reviews would have been better or worse if they had abandoned all historical details in favor of fantasy. If Farinelli had been a man with a magical gift (as it appears he did in he context of the play) rather than a castrated choral singer, would they have judged it as harshly or would they have complained about the fantasy aspect? I’m writing a blog about reviewers who regularly pan works, so this sort of thing is on my mind.


    1. I see that you too are feeling the effects of a snow day and thus have time to read and write! I love your point about the mythical quality of both the mad king and the castrato. I see, too, that you also feeling the effects of reading one too many reviews that completely misses the point, often in harmful ways. My experience has been that reviewers do not behave well with either category of realism or fantasy so I suspect your scenario would have been the most likely one.

      Liked by 1 person

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