Director John Doyle has had enormous success with his “actor-musicianship” on various musicals, most notably of course with Sweeney Todd, which, after its Whatsonstage.com Award-winning success in the West End, transferred across the pond and nabbed two of this year’s Tony Awards. This November, he’ll bring his actor-musician version of another Sondheim classic, Company, to Broadway, too.
Ahead of that, Doyle has returned to the UK to try applying his lauded technique to a play for a change: Peter Shaffer’s 1979 epic concerning Mozart and his jealous contemporary Antonio Salieri, Amadeus. Creating music live in a play about composers seems an obvious choice but, for all the star-studded previous versions on stage, it’s a first – and an inspired choice. When we hear the 17-strong ensemble strike up with extracts from The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, we fully appreciate Salieri’s fervent belief that it’s “only through hearing music that I know that God exists”.
There are many other inspired choices in Doyle’s production, which he’s also designed. The venue for one. Wilton’s Music Hall, the Victorian gem that’s still awaiting funding for restoration, is wonderfully atmospheric – Ace McCarron’s lighting bouncing off the tarnished mirrors of Doyle’s set to reveal it in all its ornately faded glory, as if an extension of Salieri’s narrative of moral decay. It’s echoey interior is also the ideal habitat for a haunted man and the “ghosts of the future” on which he calls to confess his Machiavellian crimes.
During proceedings, the musicians, doubling as members of the Viennese court, provide a macabre backdrop, with their brocaded finery and painted faces. At times, as they lug their cellos, drums and other larger instruments around, they conspire to make the stage feel slightly cramped, but when they halt – standing stock still as if posing for a royal portrait or as if frozen in time – they create truly striking tableaux. (Sweeney fans will also be glad to see some familiar faces, including Sam Kenyon, who has some scene-stealing fun when he steps forward as the Emperor.)
Given that in real life there were only six years between them, the common age disparity in actors cast as Mozart and Salieri – Simon Callow and Paul Scofield in the original NT production, Tom Hulce and F Murray Abraham in the 1984 film, Michael Sheen and David Suchet in Peter Hall’s last West End outing in 1998 – has always puzzled me. In Doyle’s pairing of Jonathan Broadbent and Matthew Kelly, there’s a substantial gap not just in years but in feet, Kelly towering above Broadbent’s exuberant, peroxided prodigy.
Two years ago, Kelly won the Best Actor Olivier for his portrayal of gentle giant Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Here, he’s another giant of a man, this time broken by envy and bitterness at his own mediocrity. As he listens to Mozart’s music or recounts the gifts bestowed on his rival, Kelly’s face twists with his pain and his grasping hands seem to take on a life of their own, casting long shadows as they flutter, as if straining to touch imaginary piano keys – or wring Mozart’s immodest neck.
It’s a memorable performance in an evening made magical by the live musicians. If I have a complaint, it’s that I’d like more of the latter. Near the end of the play, as Mozart lies expiring in his wife’s arms, the musicians disappear and his requiem is heard as some distant recording. I imagine this is meant to be a comment on the death of music, but it’s just at that moment that I’d most like the emotion – and the live notes – raised to the rafters. It seems a missed opportunity.
- Terri Paddock