REVIEW: Amadeus, Chichester Festival Theatre ✭✭✭

Rupert Everett as Salieri and Joshua McGuire as Mozart in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Rupert Everett as Salieri and Joshua McGuire as Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Chichester Festival Theatre
26 July 2014
3 Stars

The refurbished Festival Theatre at Chichester is an absolute delight. The seats are very comfortable, the leg room improved and the rake increased so that the audience is closer to the stage and blessed with better sight lines. The acoustics are perfect and the electric buzz of being in a theatre rich in memories and potent with promise is profound.

To open this wonderful new old space, Artistic Director Jonathan Church has gone for gold. Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s masterpiece about music, art and forces at work in making both, is a marvellous play and when originally staged in 1979 became a smash hit and an instant classic. Anyone who saw the televised coverage of the National Theatre’s 50th Birthday Celebrations will have an inkling why that was so.

Entering the auditorium, Simon Highlett’s superb set evokes the operatic tone immediately. Baroque influences, marble surfaces, glittering chandeliers, half silvered mirrors onto which projections can be thrown to create different environments, a hospital that can become a theatre – the look is sleek, refined, grand and ambitious. Add the sumptuously designed and made costumes and you could be watching a Mozart opera at the Royal Opera House, rather than a play about the relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

And this is a good thing. Because Shaffer’s play is a symphony, as musical as a play can be without crossing over into opera or other musical forms. It’s about music but it doesn’t depend upon it, although many of its greatest moments feature music.

One of the great disappointments here is that Church does not highlight the music as much as it should be. At times, it seems like Church wants to rush through the musical moments, when, actually, for the play to sparkle and work its charm, those moments need space, emphasis and room to breathe. The scene where Mozart enthuses about his plans for The Marriage Of Figaro or where he converts Salieri’s trite march into an immortal classic are too rushed; equally the scene where Salieri first realises Mozart’s skill with music, when he is almost deranged by the pleasure he experiences listening to Mozart’s work, does not give the music space. For these moments to work, the audience has to experience the musicality, the wonder, the promise – talking about it is not enough.

In the second Act, Salieri says this about Mozart’s work:

“I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet from the ordinary he created Legends–and I from Legends created only the ordinary!”

And, truly, that sums up Church’s production. He has taken something with legendary status and potential and made it ordinary. And he does this despite a truly inspirational design, absolutely spectacular movement and dance from the gifted Stephen Mear (he makes people stand and move beautifully, elegantly, artfully adding to the sense of glory of the time in which the action is set) and a first rate cast.

It’s a skill.

Jessie Buckley is outstandingly good as Constanze, Mozart’s wife. She is beautiful, funny, sexy and fresh. Simon Jones is perfection as the somewhat gormless Emperor Joseph II; his comic timing is superb and his wry sense of absurdity completely spot on.

His Court is stacked with gems. Timothy Kightley and John Standing are marvellous as the fusty Counts with power over mere mortals and the influence to determine what does and does not get commissioned and played. Richard Clifford is exceptionally good as Baron “Fugue” – his sense of the power and breeding of this wealthy powerful Mason is ever-present, insightful, and swathed in sneering certainty.

James Simmons and Derek Hutchinson make the most of the opportunities provided by the Venticelli; their costumes and intricate speeches were sheer sleight.

There are no weak links in the supporting cast. They are uniformly excellent with Emily Shaw’s Katherina Cavalieri, Jack Edwards’ Cook and Jeremy Bennett’s Major-Domo particularly fine. Marc Antolin and Harry Francis stand out in the ensemble.

But the play only works if Salieri and Mozart shine. Rupert Everett, fresh from his triumph as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss, seems an obvious choice for Salieri. He has the gravitas, the comic timing, the sense of palpable theatricality and the ability to cover different ages in the one turn – he showed all of that clearly enough as Wilde.

But The Judas Kiss was directed by Neil Armfield, not Jonathan Church.

Everett seems slightly at sea as Salieri. He is not bad by any measure, but nor does he soar as he might. Essentially, he is too angry too often, and while it is necessary for him to rage against God, because that is one of the great themes of the play, it is not necessary for him to rage constantly. Salieri is a cold creature; he is the antithesis of the hot headed, hot blooded Mozart. Yes, he fulminates, but he does not need to be excessive and overwrought. And certainly not as early as Everett plays it here.

Emperor Joseph II famously and comically insists that Mozart’s music has “too many notes” and it is the same with Everett’s Salieri. There are too many volcanic eruptions and not enough moments of cold, silky, cunning, icy white, near-silent, wrath and malevolence.

Everett has the style right and his comic timing is impeccable. He is especially good as the near-dying Salieri who opens and closes the play. But he needs to bring more flexibility and nuance to the role, because the writing will pay greater dividends that way. (Not at all sure the Sweeney Todd blood spurt when his throat is cut was necessary or desirable either)

On the other hand, Joshua Maguire’s Mozart doesn’t have enough notes. He needs to find a through line for the character, a way for consistency and sense to provide a rounded wholeness to his character. Mozart might be impetuous, foul-mouthed, indecorous, rude and arrogant, but the audience has to care about him – otherwise the heights the drama could reach in Act Two are never attained. As here.

Its not all about the silly, annoying laugh.

The sense of majesty, of effortless excellence, of genius must be ever-present, together with the self-doubts, the uncertainty, the fear about how things will work out. When Salieri turns the screws in Act Two, the audience needs to feel and empathise with Mozart’s pain.

But here, with Maguire gurning and widely smiling but not providing a clear sense of the genuine despair that Mozart feels that his work goes unrecognised, that jobs do not come his way, the only empathy for him comes from the connection with Constanze.

In both cases, this seems more about directorial choices than skill. Both Everett and Maguire should be able to deliver first-rate, glowing turns. Yet, they do not. Perhaps as the run continues, as their confidence and familiarity with the piece grows, it will.

Despite this, the production has much to recommend it. It’s never dull, it’s beautiful to look at and watch and the writing has not lost any of its joy. This passage, Salieri’s recognition of Mozart’s skill, in combination with Mozart’s sublime composition, is still one of the most evocative moments written for the modern stage:

Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.

And in its own way, it provides the key to the play.

Hopefully, if it transfers to the West End, Church will turn that key properly and unlock the Salieri and Mozart that Everett and Maguire ought be able to deliver.

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