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Amadeus by Peter Shaffer at Bridewell Theatre

The exact cause of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) isn’t absolutely clear, but an entire play to be centred on the circumstances surrounding his passing, and the legacy it left on Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), almost inevitably involves a fair bit of dramatic licence. The play asserts that Salieri (Chris de Pury), in his words, “murdered” Mozart (Alex Johnston), though the only person Salieri (or rather, the show’s version of Salieri) plunges a knife into is himself, and the play is quite clear that nobody believed him (Salieri) regarding his crime. Far from being one of those melodramatic stage deaths with copious amounts of fake blood, the script quite convincingly has Salieri survive, which torments him all the more, if only because he must live on with the guilt of what he claims he did.

Amadeus - Photo by Sedos.
Amadeus – Photo by Sedos.

That he tells his story in retrospect quickly introduces the idea of him being, perhaps, an unreliable narrator. Having him shift around the stage with the ‘aid’ (inverted commas mine) of a walking stick, maneuvering in a manner in which I have never seen an older person actually do seems a little bizarre. In other words, shouldn’t a deathbed confession be given on a bed, or at least a chair? I’m not sure, either, about having him speak in an accent from Somewhere Else (I couldn’t for the life of me work out where) as an old man but otherwise speak in what is presumably the actor’s natural British accent in scenes from Salieri’s younger years.

I trust you will permit a little background info, without giving absolutely everything away. Salieri had been Court Composer in Vienna for some time, having been appointed by the Austrian crown, led by Emperor Joseph II (a suitably authoritative yet cheery Adam Moulder), when Mozart arrived in Vienna with the intention of staying for an undetermined period to make a living. Salieri was a composer as well as a conductor, but he quickly grew jealous of Mozart. After initially dismissing Mozart’s compositions, Salieri eventually acknowledges some of them are very good after all, but this only strengthens his resolve to destroy Mozart’s reputation and livelihood.

In the supposed antagonist’s role, de Pury holds the audience’s attention throughout, even when his Salieri is talking about giving one-on-one music lessons. Mozart is portrayed here as a cheeky chap who retains a playful innocence about him well into adulthood, and even marriage to Constanze (Jamila Jennings-Grant), a singer, and having children together didn’t result in a more mature approach to, well, anything. It does, at least, allow for a hugely dramatic contrast between the two main characters. It’s incredibly contrived, but also incredibly entertaining.

The lighting at the performance I attended needs a little adjustment in places – more than once someone on stage was speaking in darkness. Otherwise, the audience gets its money’s worth in the three-hour running time (there is an interval), with a lot of themes being teased out as the audience is introduced to various characters in the Austrian nobility. Aside from the usual jostling for positions of influence within the royal court, the play also suggests that Salieri’s supposed disdain for Mozart spurred him (Salieri) on to produce better musical compositions than he might otherwise have done, in a bid to do better than Mozart.

The women’s parts are rather underwritten, though this production somewhat overcomes this by having Count Orsini-Rosenberg, director of the (Vienna) Royal Opera, played as a Countess (Hannah Roberts), albeit a stuffy and unlikeable one. The angst that de Pury’s Salieri ends up with is palpable – poignant without tipping over into melodrama, it’s a scintillating performance that asks whether seeking revenge and retribution at any price is really worth it in the long run.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Music, genius, jealousy and revenge.

Antonio Salieri is the established composer in the Austrian court. Enter the greatest musical genius of all time: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri has given himself to God so that he might realise his sole ambition, to be a great composer. Mozart is a foul-mouthed, graceless oaf, but he has something which is far beyond Salieri’s envious grasp: genius.

Peter Shaffer’s award-winning fictionalised account of the relationship between these two real life composers is a story for all time. Presented in a way which reaches far beyond the play’s historical roots, this production of Amadeus takes the audience on a wild ride through the trials and tribulations of music, genius, jealousy and revenge.

Amadeus plays at the Bridewell Theatre from 23 November-3 December 2022.

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