For Claire van Kampen, her 2015 debut as a playwright with Farinelli and the King was a surprise in many ways. She’d had a long career as a composer and musician, and was head of music at Shakespeare’s Globe during the tenure of her husband, actor Mark Rylance, as artistic director. She has continued working there as artistic associate under his successor, Dominic Dromgoole, and has recently been on the section committee involved in appointing Michelle Terry as the new artistic director there.
It was Dromgoole who suggested she try her hand at writing. “He has the most wonderful instinct for going with his gut,” says van Kampen. “He’d been saying for years that he thought I should write something.” Rylance, sitting beside us, offers up a reason: “It’s because he liked your e-mails! He liked the way you wrote them!”
So she did as he suggested. “I sent him a very big play about the end of the days of slavery in the Caribbean. It was a long rambling novella of a play, and it was utterly embarrassing when I assembled a cast of such illustrious actors as Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Mark around a table at our home,” she says. “I thought I’d written a great play, but then I heard it and it wasn’t what I expected or hoped it to be! But Dominic said to me a few weeks later, the play was right there in the middle section of it — and he told me to write it. He said he was scheduling it [for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse], so I had better get on with it!”
That section concerned a castrato singer called Farinelli, and how his singing helped the King of Spain overcome his mental illness. “I found the story via nefarious means,” van Kampen says. “I was working with three countertenors on The Tempest at the Globe, and one asked me if I knew the story of Farinelli. So I looked it up and realized it was a story about carers and someone who is incredibly gifted and can’t show it. The king is trapped in a place where he can’t show his hand — he’s someone who has a great sense of truth, but he can’t be himself. And he meets someone who feels the same way — Farinelli, who was damaged at the age of 10 by being castrated, and has become a celebrity but feels like a fake celebrity because he was not born with that voice. They meet headlong.”
Van Kampen says its portrait of mental illness was inspired by someone closer to home. “It was based on a relative of mine who lived with us when I was growing up. If anything, the accounts of mania are watered down from what I remember living with. I wrote the play from my own knowledge and my own heart.”
The great luck with the play was the casting of her husband as the king. “Don’t tell him, but I think he’s the best actor in the world,” she says as Rylance sits beside her. But he wasn’t originally available to do it: “And I didn’t think for a minute he’d want to do it either. But then he read it on a train, and he said he’d love to. I was very, very grateful!”
And now she’s thrilled it is headed to Broadway. “I think it has Broadway written all over it. It’s an event, like Twelfth Night and Richard III were. When the audience gets in and sees the candlelight and hears the music, it’s like nothing else. As a piece, it’s not a classic, and it’s by a playwright no one knows — but they’ve heard of Mark, thank God! It’s a helluva spectacle. And for Mark’s performance, every time he does Broadway he does something different and presents a different side to himself. People know that, and that is what they are coming to see.”
They will also hear a selection of glorious operatic arias, mostly by Handel. “For a layperson who never goes to the opera and doesn’t know about baroque music and is suspicious, it will go straight to their hearts. You don’t have to be clever to understand it. I know they’ll be moved by it.”