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Theatre by Candlelight

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Dec 18, 2017

How Farinelli and the King shines a very old-fashioned light on Broadway


Three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance may be center stage in Farinelli and the King, but lighting designer Paul Russell is the one who puts him in the spotlight. Or, more accurately, candlelight. Written by Rylance's wife Claire van Kampen, the new London import about bipolar 18th-century monarch Philippe V is illuminated primarily by candles, and it's incredible how far their flickering flames can shine.

"The human eye is amazing," says Farinelli lighting designer Paul Russell. "If you give it enough time, it will adjust and adapt. You just have to get the audiences' eyes used to a darker environment."

As the longtime production manager for Shakespeare's Globe, where Farinelli originated in 2015, Russell is well-versed in this vintage aesthetic. The play was specifically crafted for the company's indoor, candlelit, 340-seat Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which recalls the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare's troupe the King's Men performed during the winter.

"The idea was to recreate a space that Shakespeare would have recognized," says Russell, who began experimenting with candlelit productions when the Wanamaker opened in 2013. He auditioned some 175 candlemakers before settling on pure beeswax candles that are made in Yorkshire in the North of England. "The candles can last seven or eight hours if the flames are kept completely vertical," Russell says. To maximize their longevity, during intermission the stagehands tend to all the candles in the various chandeliers and sconces. "They are trimming the wicks so that the flames stay straight," Russell explains. A similar technique was employed in Shakespeare's day, but it required as many as five intermissions to keep the candles going.


Farinelli explores the complicated relationship between the ailing King Phillippe V (Rylance) and the famed castrato Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane and sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies). The success of the show's initial run at the Wanamaker led to a West End transfer, and now to Broadway's Belasco Theatre. According to set designer Jonathan Fensom, with each move they strove to preserve the feel of the original production by recreating the intimate, Jacobean-style interior of the Wanamaker in the significantly larger venues. "At the Belasco we have extended the set for a wider stage and we painted more gold leaf," he says. "We also painted the side boxes -- a reference to early Spanish 17th-century architecture and the Baroque -- which allowed us to introduce more contrast in terms of light and dark. Candlelight really does pick up the stars on the ceiling and the gold bars on the columns, even from 15 feet."

At the Wanamaker, artificial light from the wings enhanced the candlelight. But for the bigger West End and Broadway houses, it became necessary to add onstage electric lights, though they're cleverly concealed from the audience. "You need to give the person in the 15th row the same experience as the person the fifth row, but wherever there is a pool of light, it is always led by the candles," Russell says.

"The important thing when you look at the space is you genuinely feel that the light source is within it," says Fensom, who also designed the costumes. "We discovered that most colors -- except bizarrely red, which turns brown -- are appropriate for candlelight. It is about the iridescence of the fabric rather than the color. The Queen's costumes, for instance, are all silks, so the quality of the light on them shows off the form."

In a theatre industry that's becoming increasingly high-tech, the old-school approach to Farinelli's design has been a welcome creative challenge. "You go back to basics," says Fensom, who also notes the show doesn't use microphones, either. "It is a kind of stripping back, which I think is nice to do here in a city that enjoys a lot of light and a lot of sound. We are rediscovering a language from the past."


Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.

Top image: Iestyn Davies and Mark Rylance in the foreground in Farinelli and the King. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.