Review Round-up: Amadeus Strikes Mixed Chords
Date: 20 September 2006
Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus is revived for a limited season to 14 October 2006 at east London’s atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall, where it opened on Monday (18 September 2006, previews from 14 September - See News, 21 Jul 2006).
Sweeney Todd director-designer John Doyle applies his multi award-winning actor-musician musical approach to the production, which features Stars in Their Eyes presenter turned Olivier Award winner Matthew Kelly as Salieri to Jonathan Broadbent’s Mozart.
Set in 18th-century Vienna, Amadeus explores the relationship between the obsessive Austrian Court composer Antonio Salieri and his meteoric young rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Most first night critics agreed that having musicians play live on stage added a great deal to the production – though perhaps not enough – but were divided about Matthew Kelly’s central role as Salieri, as well as the quality of Shaffer’s original play. Highest praise was reserved for the venue itself which, said the critics, provides an ideal setting for the piece.
Terri Paddock on Whatsonstage.com – “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 at that. 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’…. Two years ago, Matthew 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.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “Peter Shaffer’s Mozart play displays what I don’t like as well as what I do like about his work: it’s theatrical, it’s gripping, but its pretension-quotient and tosh-level are worryingly high…. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that this thesis means that the tactless, mercurial Mozart has become a boorish megalomaniac with coprophiliac tendencies. Dramatists may take liberties with history and, in John Doyle’s production, Jonathan Broadbent is a relatively restrained and even touching Amadeus. It’s more that a classical-era story has become a romantic melodrama: mediocre man versus the sublime genius…. Matthew Kelly crumples his face to signal grimness, splutters and snarls to signal envy, roars to signal vindictive rage, and altogether does too much signalling and not enough embodying.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In Wilton's, that wonderfully atmospheric, semi-derelict old music hall in the East End, the play has found its perfect setting…. Indeed, it's hard to tell where the building ends and Doyle's design of gilt chairs and tarnished mirrors begins. To move this show to another theatre would inevitably be to diminish it. And this is a play that needs all the help it can get, as Shaffer trots out bogus profundities about the nature of genius and personal ruminations on what it feels like to know you are deeply second-rate – a subject on which the playwright certainly speaks with authority. The dramatist's obsessive recurring theme of god-like genius colliding with destructive mediocrity runs through his major dramas like letters through a stick of rock, and, frankly, I'm sick to death of it…. The play repeatedly insists that in the music of Mozart we hear the voice of God, so it is unfortunate that the intonation is dodgy and the singing ragged. God, in fact, seems to be having a bit of an off day. Sondheim and G&S can take a bit of a bashing; Mozart demands perfection. The best thing about the show is Matthew Kelly as the jealous Salieri, who does all he can to block his younger rival's progress.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “While Mozart's music achieves scant approval, Salieri is embraced by success. A terrible jealousy inspires the older man to kill the man whose operas, serenades and symphonies leave him both enraptured and enraged. Yet Kelly, whose impassive, waxwork face remains shrouded in sulky boredom, never conveys Salieri's ironic anguish or fear of God's punishment…. Kelly, eyebrows archly raised, merely scales the heights of noisy petulance…. The play lacks the vital spur of conflict.” However, “Doyle, who often casts actors who play instruments too, scores a theatrical coup by making the courtiers into a little musical ensemble who elegantly play sequences from a Mozart serenade…. Jonathan Broadbent’s Mozart…. is the production's redeeming glory…. Broadbent, a dyed-blond, overwhelming Amadeus, combines the vulnerability and exuberance of an emotionally insecure teenager with the pathos of a divine musician who succumbs to poverty, hunger and illness in valiant if bemused stoicism.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Although I miss the lush grandeur of previous stagings, John Doyle's use of actor-musicians both suits the piece and is far more aesthetically satisfying than in his extravagantly admired Sweeney Todd…. The great gain comes from the fact that the music is made before our eyes by the 17-strong ensemble. You could have a more perfect version of the adagio of the serenade for 13 wind instruments; but it is moving to hear the music created in front of us. And the moment when Mozart improvises on a formal Salieri march to compose what will become “Non piu andrai” from Figaro is enhanced by the fact that Jonathan Broadbent is playing it in the moment…. Matthew Kelly endows Salieri with a pious worthiness. Large of stature and with a mass of silvery hair, he looks the embodiment of an official court composer; but he also suggests a man poisoned by the knowledge that Mozart is a genius…. Broadbent also brings out Mozart's scatological blabbering and naive conceit: you can see why he would drive his court contemporaries to distraction.”
- by Caroline Ansdell
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