This review must begin with a caveat: Amadeus was originally meant to be performed in the Master’s Garden at Univ, but since garden plays are unfortunately subject to the whims of nature, the poor weather meant it was moved to the chapel last-minute. While the relocation greatly complimented the religious themes of the play, it also significantly changed the staging – the space was much smaller, and the piano was placed differently, meaning some adjustments to blocking had to be improvised by the cast on the night. The acoustics were also an issue because of this, with the music in the antechapel often overpowering the dialogue on stage. All this would no doubt have been a non-issue if the play had been performed where intended.
The irony of Amadeus is that it is not actually a play about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but about his rival Antonio Salieri. Salieri, having heard Mozart’s compositions and greatly admiring his work, is desperate to meet the man. Yet he is greatly disillusioned upon meeting his hero, who is in reality a “giggling imbecile” despite his genius. The disenchanted Salieri proceeds to denounce God for choosing Mozart over himself as the conduit for such a gift, and spends the rest of the play masquerading as Mozart’s ally while destroying his reputation behind the scenes. Most of the play’s action is told in flashback, ending with a tearful Salieri describing himself as a “patron saint of mediocrities” – for even after the downfall of Mozart, his work is lauded by many. Salieri, however, is left to wallow in misery, perpetually in the shadow of the man he ruined despite all his work to prevent this eventuality.
Eddie H-M, who played Salieri, delivered a beautifully genuine performance, and possessed a rare ability to totally transform his demeanour as the timeline switched from past to present. He morphed from a commanding, vengeful schemer determined on destroying his hero (albeit with lapses of his conscience coming back to haunt him), to a tormented soul full of regret. The boorish Mozart was played by Tom Fisher, who delivered the role with great manic energy and captivating gusto, his puerile glee complete with a myriad of animated expressions and an infectious, high-pitched giggle that only just hinged on annoying. The two actors had a brilliant chemistry, and their violently clashing personalities led to very enjoyable viewing. My favourite scene by far was one where Mozart subtly snubs Salieri’s work by playing a mediocre piece of his entirely from memory, before effortlessly deconstructing and transforming it into a work of art as Salieri looks on with shock and jealousy. Salieri’s quiet seething and palpable rage wonderfully contrasted with Mozart’s unselfconscious flamboyance, and it was a delight to watch Mozart careening across the stage, light on his feet with waving conductor hands as the music played, before completing the piece by jumping off a piano stool with a flourish. As for the supporting cast, particular praise must be given to comedic duo Matt Kenyon and Dorothy McDowell, who played Salieri’s venticelli, relaying the latest news and gossip with boundless swagger and flair, and Ariel Levine as the pompous Emperor Joseph.
The main issue with the play that irked me, however, was its pacing and direction: there are several significant moments in the play denoting the gradual shift in power between Mozart and Salieri, but they were glossed over and even rushed at points, meaning that the climax of the play felt rather sudden and out of place without a proper build-up. Much of the performance relied on freeze-frames as Salieri told his tale in flashback, frequently breaking out from scenes with other characters to directly address the audience. I could not help but feel that more attention should have been paid to the staging of this – either with more effective lighting choices or more pauses to indicate when the shifts occurred – rather than leaving the audience to infer them from intent listening to the text. Moreover, much of the supporting cast could have done with more character work: there was great comic potential in bringing out Italian and German caricatures as they are frequently referenced in the play, but this opportunity was sadly missed. This meant that much of the supporting cast mostly served as no more than a homogenous backdrop to the two rich central roles. Granted, one aspect in which Priya Radhakrishnan’s direction shone was in the meticulous blocking and use of space, creating a wide range of visually interesting moments; however, this was let down by the relocation of the performance to the chapel, meaning there was a lot of upstaging as the lead actors were forced to have their backs to the audience a lot of the time.
Armed with a sparkling script, opulent costuming, and a formidable central cast, this play was a delight to watch despite its flaws. Combining music with theatre is no easy task, and especially considering the last-minute changes that had to be made to the performance, Radhakrishnan’s Amadeus is a great achievement.