First Nighter: Mark Rylance in 'Farinelli and the King,' John Hollingworth's 'Multitudes,' Zinie Harris's 'How to Hold Your Breath'

03/03/2015 04:19 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

London -- Since William Congreve wrote that "music hath charm to soothe a savage breast," people have assumed he was right. The composer Claire van Kampen has decided to demonstrate its truth by imagining Farinelli and the King -- at the Sam Wanamaker, though not for long -- and having spouse Mark Rylance take the right hand side of the title roles.

Rylance is Philippe V, who's discovered in bed fishing over a goldfish bowl while his country, and more immediately his wife Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove) and chief minister De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) await hoped-for flashes of lucidity.

Mental health restoration only comes when Doctor Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya), the court physician, brings famous castrato Farinelli (Sam Crane) to sing. The ruse works. Claiming that on listening to Farinelli, he now realizes there is a heaven, Philippe regains his senses and, a threat to depose him quelled, takes charge of his duties again.

The catch is that he insists Farinelli sing for him at the drop of a crown--24/7. Though Farinelli is at first reluctant to abandon his thriving career, he eventually does, cutting himself off from devoted associate Metastasio (Colin Hurley).

Part of the staying-on allure is Isabella's romantic interest in him and, though he fights it, his for her. Much of that anguish is played out after Philippe, slipping in and out of rational behavior, has decided they all must live in the forest to commune with the musical stars.

Although Crane speaks Farinelli's dialogue, one of two countertenors does the singing, always in duplicate costumes. They're either Iestyn Davies, whom I heard, or William Purefoy, and the celestial effect they have is in very large part responsible for the overall spell van Kampen and the always astonishing Rylance cast.

Rylance, almost needless to say of the frequent award winner, can be touching when he wants and just as often seemingly off-the-cuff funny. His great gift is his ability to switch at an instant between strength and vulnerability. While his entire performance is a high point, he's especially appealing during a sequence when he gleefully observes a crowd gathered in the forest by Doctor Cervi as they, too, cheer Farinelli and his bringing them that new-fangled thing: opera.

Taking place on the small, candle-lit Wanamaker stage as well as in its short center aisle, Farinelli and the King, as directed by John Dove, is a bibelot of a piece, as delightful and shiny as a charm on a royal bracelet. Offered in the intimate Jacobean setting (seating capacity: 340), the play is like a music box within a music box. It's really about an undoubted concern of van Kampen's as a composer: Can art heal? She makes a strong argument that it definitely can, at least some of the time.
Islamophobia is showing up in worldwide headlines, and, in particular, is receiving a close and unsettling consideration at the always politically engaged Tricycle. The bad news is blared in John Hollingworth's Multitudes.

The playwright is concerned with the unlikelihood of the threatening development to diminish any time soon. Though seemingly bland at first view, his title suggests that a lessening of the global situation isn't about to happen when so many opinions and positions proliferate. He's saying that those promoting Islam either peacefully or violently and those opposed to it are so varied that agreement among the multiple factions is chimeric.

He focuses his two-act work on Natalie (Clare Calbraith), who's just converted to Islam as a result of a volatile affair with Kash (Navin Chowdhry), a moderate engaged in perpetuating his convictions. His daughter Qadira (Salma Hoque), however, takes a radical stance. At the same time, Natalie's mother, Lyn (Jacqueline King) is willing to go along with Natalie's conversion but retains strong feelings about Muslim presence in the England she's known and now sees irreversibly changing around her.

Tricycle artistic director Indhu Rubasingham directs the drama by orchestrating well the constantly explosive emotions. The heated events come to a boil in Bradford, England as a Conservative Party conference is on its way. Much of the strife among the four principals occurs in regard to a speech Kash is preparing to give calling for moderation. As he's seen in silhouette delivering it, Qadira in the foreground has a protest in mind the result of which further affects all their lives.

Rubasingham and her actors leave little opportunity for missing first-time dramatist Hollingworth's dire point. If he's right about it--and, sad to say, there's little substantiation for a counter argument--the future of clashing religious outlooks is grim.
Somewhere near the end of Zinie Harris's How to Hold Your Breath, at the Royal Court, a character called the Librarian (Peter Forbes) looks at in extremis protagonist Dana (Maxine Peake) and says, "Let's face it, she saw the dark swamp at the bottom of the human soul."

Though the line is meant to devastate with its acknowledgement of how dreadful life really is, most spectators could feel the urge to laugh. They may fight the urge, but few would deny it.

There are playwrights--Harris is one of them--who think they're plumbing the, uh, dark swamp at the bottom of the human soul but who are actually doing no such thing. They're merely attempting to be taken as serious artists by vociferously promoting a pessimistic view of the human condition. The problem is they're proclaiming nihilism without earning the right.

Poor Dana begins by having Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), the man with whom she just had sex (and possibly the Devil?), offer to pay her because he assumed that when he picked her up, she was a prostitute. It's humiliating, but what follows makes that figurative slap seem like a big smooch. Later, when Dana is at the pinnacle of a ramp down which a contingent of supernumeraries are slip-sliding, she's truly gotten herself in trouble.

No need to go on about Harris's script, which Royal Court artistic director Wendy Featherstone helmed, other than to say it's not worth anyone's time, least of all Harris's or Featherstone's.