Susannah Van Den Berg
Michael George Moore
John Doyle’s modern dress production of Amadeus, performed in the faded grandeur of Wilton’s Music Hall, London, is more successful at evoking the mediocrity of Salieri than the genius of Mozart. Doyle chooses to explore the melodramatic side of Peter Shaffer’s writing and the acting from Matthew Kelly and the rest of the cast is declamatory throughout. This may pay homage to the ambience of the music hall setting but it doesn’t do much for the play.
There was a moment in the original production of Amadeus at the National Theatre, when Salieri hears Mozart’s music for the first time, which was a real coup de theatre. The delicate beauty of the music (the Serenade K.361) and Paul Scofield’s acting sent a tingle up the spine that I vividly remember twenty seven years later.
Matthew Kelly is an Olivier award winner but clearly he is not Paul Scofield and the other lead performances also disappoint, although given time Jonathan Broadbent’s Mozart could grow into a memorable portrayal. Sadly, all the subtlety and depth needed to do justice to this tale of musical rivalry is lacking in this production.
The whole piece is played sforzando with virtually no relief. The Serenade extract in particular is performed fortissimo with the actor bellowing his lines over the top of it, losing the beauty of the moment. The same thing happens later in the play when Salieri is torn between his hatred of Mozart and complete wonderment at the final act of The Marriage of Figaro.
John Doyle recently directed the highly successful production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which played in the West End and won a Tony on Broadway. There he used actor/musicians to great effect and he tries to do the same here. Unfortunately, he casts young people who can play instruments but lack stage experience and much of the performance is reminiscent of a drama school production. However, I did enjoy the Venticelli of Eamonn O’Dwyer and Sebastian Bates, who lurk menacingly throughout much of the action.
What Doyle is attempting with the music is brave but it just doesn’t work in this context. It falls between two stools because the chamber ensemble, although only required to play short musical extracts, is equally poor. If weak as actors, they are not accomplished enough as musicians for this material and this does an injustice both to Mozart and Shaffer’s excellent selection of the music, which beautifully underscores the drama. Wisely they do not attempt to play the music from the Requiem, which is so vital to the latter part of the play, and hearing recorded sound at this point is an enormous relief.
The staging, with its ornate but tarnished mirrors, is elegant if rather cramped on the tiny stage raised high above the audience’s eyeline. Setting the play in undefined modern costumes, with the odd 18th Century flourish, seems to be a practical move rather than an aesthetic one.
I have admired John Doyle’s work for many years and I really wanted to like this production. Where it did succeed was in making me want to listen to more Mozart, no mean feat towards the end of an already full 250th anniversary year.
With the recent Royal Hunt of the Sun at the National and a proposed West End production of Equus, Peter Shaffer is enjoying something of a revival at the moment. Seeing these plays again, I find there is an overblown quality to them with too much reliance on narration. Despite their undoubted theatrical flare, which was impressive when they were first performed, I wonder if they will be revived in another 25 five to 30 years. I suspect not.