Saturday, July 26, 2014

Genius In West Sussex

Sometimes it does you good to get out of London's Theatreland and venture into the country's Theatreland instead.

Last Saturday found us on a train chuffing down to Sussex to see what the renovation of the Chichester Festival Theatre were like but primarily it was to see Rupert Everett play the barnstorming role of Salieri in Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS.

I had seen Milos Forman's award-laden screen adaptation but had never seen the play on stage before.  The original directed by Peter Hall at the NT in 1979 with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow was three years before my Paulian conversion to the magic of theatre and I later missed Hall's revival at the Old Vic in 1998.  That version starred David Suchet as Salieri and Michael Sheen as the titular composer.  I am presuming my reason for not going was because if it wasn't Paul Scofield then there was really no point!

But when I heard that Rupert Everett was going to play Salieri to open the new season I knew I had to see it this time.  Chichester is only 90 minutes by train from Victoria so tickets were booked and it was off to a Saturday matinee.  Needless to say a matinee in Chichester can almost guarantee that I will be among the youngest in the audience!

Seeing it the first time on stage made me realise how theatrical the play is, a Shaffer trait.  The aged Salieri almost gives us a commentary on the play itself, signalling when the interval is going to be and what we can expect in the second half - when he has returned from evacuating his bowels!   The sinister opening with the citizens of Vienna in the theatre eerily whispering "Sssssalieriiiii" sets the unsettling tone of the play which culminates in a truly haunting final image.

I am also surprised that in 35 years this is only it's second major revival.  Shaffer's play gives the chance for two actors to play such well-written lead roles and the play always seems to have successful runs.

Salieri (Everett) is a recluse in his Viennese palazzo, a forgotten composer whose operas and compositions were once fashionable but the city is swirling with the rumour that he murdered his fellow composer Mozart (Joshua McGuire) 32 years before.  The decrepit Salieri takes us back to that era when he was the court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Simon Jones) and the rumour sweeping the city then was of the arrival of the gifted young Mozart.

Salieri, a man who as a teenager vowed his life to God for the chance to make music, is appalled to discover that the young man who composes music that Salieri thinks is Heaven-blessed, is an obnoxious, braggart who revels in childish behaviour and scatological humour.  If this is how God chooses to bestow his grace then what has Salieri's vow to be His servant on earth been for?  In a rage against God and life, Salieri sets out to ruin the young composer's chances of advancement, to wreck his musical career, to kill him. 

Who better to be our sardonic narrator than Everett?  He was quite magnificent.  Effortlessly moving from the crabby and aged Salieri to his suave and assured younger self with just a wig, two swipes of black across his eyebrows and a change in his voice, he held the attention for the whole length of the play with ease. 

By turns playful, murderous, anguished and self-pitying, he rose to the operatic finale of the play with a power that left me stunned.  His horror at the cruelty of life and God was wonderful to see.  As I watched him I felt grateful that he has decided to embrace the stage again because, as he proved as Oscar Wilde in THE JUDAS KISS, given the right part he is sublime.

McGuire's Mozart was less of a success, probably due to Shaffer's unwillingness to show us the soul where his music comes from; if Shaffer wants to show that Mozart could just 'turn it on' and produced music with such passion without having any himself then he has succeeded.  Only in his last scene, composing the music in his head as he dies in his wife's arms, did McGuire connect.

Jessie Buckley was a little revelation as Constanze, the wife who stands by her husband no matter what life throws at them.  She first came to my attention in the BBC series I'LL DO ANYTHING as one of the contestants vying to play Nancy in the revival of OLIVER! and I later found her ineffectual as Anne in the Menier's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.  But last year she impressed as Princess Katherine to Jude Law's HENRY V and here she was very good as the playful wife who becomes a bewildered, hurt woman.  


I liked Simon Jones as the airy, ineffectual Joseph II and could see how marvellous the late and great John Normington would have been in the original production and there was a demonstration in excellent supporting performance from John Standing, Richard Clifford and Timothhy Kightley as the unmoving bastions of accepted music in the court.

Jonathan Church's production was atmospheric and moved at a good pace while losing none of Shaffer's literate script and certainly provided a wealth of memorable moments, helped immeasurably by Simon Higlett's spare set of frosted mirrored doors - encompassing crumbling Vienniese mansions and elegant court life - and Tim Mitchell's evocative lighting.  Fotini Dimou's costumes were a feast for the eyes as Paul Groothuis' sound design was for the ears.


I have heard nothing of a London transfer for the production - it would be a shame if it's short playing time at Chichester could not be extended elsewhere, giving a wider audience the chance to enjoy a fine production and to see how charismatic a stage actor we have in Rupert Everett.

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