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Review The New York Times: Mark Rylance Returns as a Mad Monarch to Cherish in ‘Farinelli’

His Majesty is not himself today. His most unserene highness, the King of Spain, does not know who or what he is, except that he’s not where he belongs. Approach him with caution: He bites. And allow me, if you will, to advise you never to take your eyes off him.

Not that you’ll want to.

As was observed of another stark raving royal (named Hamlet), “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” This is especially true when a great one is portrayed by one of the greatest actors on the planet.

Uncork the Champagne and unfurl the straitjacket. Mark Rylance is once again ruling audiences at the Belasco Theater, where the strangely enchanting “Farinelli and the King,” Claire van Kampen’s shimmering fairy tale for grown-ups, opened on Sunday night.

Mr. Rylance, a three-time Tony winner (and an Oscar and Olivier Award winner) was last seen at the Belasco four years ago, during the triumphant residency of the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe. At that time, he alternated in the roles of the uncertain Countess Olivia (in “Twelfth Night”), for whom falling in love becomes an existential crisis, and the demonically assured title character of “Richard III.”

In “Farinelli and the King,” also a Globe production, he occupies a poignant middle ground between those two Shakespearean archetypes, as a troubled soul who shifts between lyric melancholia and splenetic rage. That’s Philippe V of Spain, an early-18th-century monarch whose mental health was of great concern to an already unsteady Europe.

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Mr. Rylance, center, a three-time Tony winner, was last seen at the theater four years ago, during the triumphant residency of the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

At this point, you may think the last person you want to spend time with is a crazy, capricious head of state with the power to wage cataclysmic war. But fear not. You are far more likely to see yourself in this sad King, who worries that he is an impostor of the highest order, than any resemblance to a certain contemporary world leader.

What’s more, unlike the current resident of the White House, Philippe comes to see art as a healing and redemptive force. And with art given sublime voice here by the British countertenor Iestyn Davies, you are unlikely to argue with the King’s belief in its holy transcendence.

Mr. Davies does not portray the celebrated countertenor of the play’s title, who is recruited to soothe the King’s savage breast. Or not exactly. Yes, he appears on stage in full 18th-century costume but only to sing (blissfully) arias by Handel.

Farinelli, the young Italian opera star who was castrated at the age of 10 by his musician brother, is affectingly embodied by another, identically dressed actor, Sam Crane. This unconfident man does not feel he produces, much less owns, the exquisite notes that come out of him.

That voice, which has made a freak as well as an idol of Farinelli, is somehow something apart. His famous self is its own autonomous being. Such a fission between person and persona is a divide with which Philippe can well identify.

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