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Amadeus

by on 27 January 2020

Mozart, Music and the Almighty

Amadeus

by Peter Shaffer

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 31st January

Review by Claire Alexander

In the years between 1781 and 1791 Vienna is at its zenith of European musical influence. Not only has the young prodigy Mozart recently come to town but there are references to Bach and Beethoven and other composers of the time. Antonio Salieri has been honoured with the position of Court composer but he is finding the role rigid and stultifying and not helpful to his own secret ambitions of becoming a celebrated composer. His aristocratic audiences are not genuinely appreciative of music – they have banned ‘encores’ and frequently refer to Mozart’s music as having ‘too many notes’.

Into this rigid and rarefied atmosphere the young Mozart bounds into town, fresh from a European tour, ready to make his name. But despite his music which is already turning ears, Mozart is also a spoilt toddler and his behaviour turns heads equally. The already respected Salieri (he taught the young Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt) is suspicious of this young upstart, initially looking on in horror and incredulity, but when he first hears Mozart’s music he quickly realises he is in the presence of unparalleled genius which only serves to highlight his own inadequacies.

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Amadeus is essentially the story of Salieri’s growing jealousy of Mozart and his attempts to block his path to success in the court hierarchy, but the play is so much more than that. The story is told from Salieri’s perspective, largely recounted in recall thirty years later as he lives in care suffering from dementia. He is wracked with guilt from his part in the early death of Mozart (who had died in poverty in 1791 at only 35). Salieri struggles not only with his dawning realisation of his own mediocre talent, but his relationship with God, his own personal sense of injustice alongside his inspirational peer. Mozart, in contrast, never wavers from the unshakeable belief that his more respected peer has his interests at heart – to get his music recognised, and out of poverty.

A note on Peter Shaffer’s writing here – there are shades of Dysart’s existential struggles – the psychiatrist in Equus (his play of a few years’ earlier) – who tries to make sense of his own behaviours alongside those of the boy that he has been asked to help, obsessed with blinding horses. Peter Shaffer excels in this type of writing, trying to understand the deeper motivations and influences that shape individuals when presented with a dilemma that shakes their own belief. But not only is Amadeus the story of Salieri’s struggle it is also a portrait of Mozart, his music and the Viennese court of the time. It is a brilliantly conceived play.

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Its success relies hugely on the two central characters and the part of Salieri must be among the most challenging; and Mozart needs to be played with care and control without overplaying the excesses of his childlike behaviour so they do not become annoying and irritating to the audience. It is an ambitious play for a non-professional group to undertake.

This was not an ostentatious and elaborate production (a simple, effective set design by Jenna Powell and Lizzie Lattimore) that the Viennese court of the time might expect, but instead the story, and Salieri’s struggles, are clearly and empathically told. In the character of Salieri, Steve Taylor is outstanding, particularly effective as the old man, close to death. Although modern thinking suggests that Salieri is indeed AmadeusPromo2a provocateur in Mozart’s downfall, Steve gives us a sympathetic, thought provoking and intelligent performance. There are powerful moments as he is overcome by Mozart’s genius when he hears the Serenade for Wind, and The Mass in C minor for the first time. Ian Kinane equally gives us a measured and touching performance of Mozart avoiding overacting the child too much, and draws us slowly and compellingly into his journey into poverty with increasing desperation.

I would also like to mention Helen Geldert’s performance as Katherina Cavalieri (one of the leading sopranos of the time), who boldly steps up to the challenge of singing the fiendishly difficult Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute; and from the Mass in C minor. This was exhilarating singing and added to the production when all of the other music was recorded.

Trine Taraldsvik as Constanze Weber, Mozart’s wife, was touching at the end as she grieved over her dead husband and tried to keep his name alive by selling his manuscripts priced by the number of notes! I wanted the Venticelli (Salieri’s eyes and ears into the real Vienna) to have a little more variety and speed in their quick fire observations but they were well matched. The other roles are small compared to the central characters and in this production largely formed tableaux to the rear of the stage. For me this seemed in keeping with the production which never lost sight of Salieri’s story.

There might have been some inconsistencies in some of the detail, especially the dress wigs which would have been de rigeur at the time. Some of the cast had wigs, some didn’t, and I could not work out any pattern to this. But Mags Wrightson and Lesley Alexander and her team have clearly worked tirelessly to give us an accurate a picture of 18th century Vienna. And I enjoyed the atmospheric lighting by Patrick Troughton. Music is of course central to the story and many of Mozart’s most well-known compositions featured. I know this is specified in the script but I would have liked a little more Mozart especially in the first Act – it is as if Salieri is obsessed with his genius – almost as though he couldn’t get it out of his head.

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But these are small points. This production really excelled in the way it captured Salieri’s and Mozart’s contrasting fortunes and accompanying struggles. It never lost sight of the heart of the narrative, and Peter Shaffer’s brilliantly conceived script, in a way that other more lavish productions could. Although it is long, at almost three hours, the audience was rapt throughout, and the pause prior to Salieri’s death at the end, mesmerising. I applaud Dane Hardie’s sensitive, revealing direction and TTC for taking on another ambitious production so successfully.

Claire Alexander
January 2020

Photography by Sarah J Carter

One Comment

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  1. Mozart and Salieri, a Whodunit | Mark Aspen

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