Amadeus has epic written all over it. Mortal versus Mozart, a bargain with God. Epic subject, epic story, epic length. And of course, that epic-sounding music, in the background, the foreground, suffusing all.
Sir Peter Hall s production is clearly conscious of the epic associations of Peter Shaffer s 1979 play but doesn t let itself be cowed by them. Hall s slick and fluid direction steers us confidently through the intrigues and shifting time periods of 18th century Viennese society where Antonio Salieri revelled and Mozart rebelled. The requisite opulence of court life is also there, more flavoursome than full-on - the brocade jackets, gilded chairs, trolleys of towering sweets and William Dudley s clever double-layered backdrop of glass and mirror. The sheets veer from translucent to opaque, revealing and concealing where necessary. At one point, as Salieri muses in the foreground, a Mozart opera plays in ghostly shadow behind. At another, the house lights are raised and the audience stares back at itself.
Or it would if anyone was able to take their eyes off a superb cast that glitters and glistens of its own accord. David Suchet - he of the hooded brow and piercing stare - was made for the part of the bitter and menacing Salieri, the man who “blazed like a comet across the firmament of Europe” in his lifetime but is all too aware of the worthlessness of his legacy.
And as Salieri s nemesis, Mozart, Michael Sheen is absolutely captivating - that laugh, that boyish charm, that reckless spontaneity. Even if you ve never seen Milos Forman s formidable film, you know, from the very beginning, that this creature is doomed. His decline is heartrending to watch and you are tempted to sprint onto the stage and protect him - no, no, don t say that, please don t do that - guard him against himself and of course Salieri.
With all this going for it then, why does Amadeus fail to fully engage? Perhaps its the intervening years since its premiere, and yes, that film, which obfuscate one s memory about the flaws in the stage version. For there are flaws. Most noticeably, the telling-not-showing nature of Salieri s monologues - fine enough for a film where perspectives can be manipulated, on stage they just come across as overly long and at times tedious, a handbrake on the action.
Epic? Not quite. But blame the playwright, not the production. And go to see it anyway.