Sunday, September 20, 2009

Amadeus

4MBS
Theatre Royal, Hobart
September 18, 2009
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play offers a strange challenge: to tell a story of one art form through another. It is not a musical, it is a play; but music is at its core. Amadeus is an imaginatively speculative history of madness, creativity, jealousy, and sabotage. But beneath all these, it is also a narrative of music. Amadeus comes from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, a composer and contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Shaffer’s Salieri (played in this production by Andrew McFarlane) is incurably jealous of Mozart’s youthful genius, and speaks directly to the audience during his own final hour, recounting and justifying his attempts to discredit and eventually annihilate Amadeus (Dash Kruck).

An interpretation of the play must somehow marry Mozart’s music with Shaffer’s text. There are moments in 4MBS’s production which manage this beautifully. A symbolic storm is born out of the swelling Kyrie Eleison, and Salieri suffers a Stendhal-syndrome-like response. This moment is a good example. But most of the time, I found myself yearning for more music. Snippets of pre-recorded Mozart are frequently dangled enticingly behind the dialogue, but then irritatingly and abruptly snatched away. Whether or not you are familiar with Mozart’s works, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with the desperate passion behind Salieri’s jealousy, when this jealousy is built on an intimate recognition of Mozart’s creative brilliance. But without much Mozart in the soundscape, it is too easy to forget his extraordinary talent, and we are also left wanting for glimpses of Salieri’s own experience of the music.

The relationship between the composers is one of insincere patronage, as Salieri’s devious advice eventually drives the naive Mozart to destruction. The play is a study of one man’s power to exploit another’s paranoias. An audience must feel moved by Salieri’s malicious actions, and struggle to forgive him. McFarlane’s Salieri is human, bitter, and believable (with the exception of excessive directorial melodrama in several monologues). But Kruck’s Mozart is so puerile, so conceited, so crass, so frivolous that if he had squeakily tittered just once more, I’d have been ready to jump up and save Salieri the trouble. The interpretation is clearly a considered creative decision, and Kruck’s energy and commitment are remarkable. Certainly, it presents a bravely imaginative insight into the flawed humanity behind the canonised glory of Mozart’s creativity. However, it is hard work caring about this unlikeable character, which in turn strains Salieri’s protracted justification of his behaviour.

The supporting cast are unassuming and sound, but have little to do beyond providing a backdrop for Salieri’s self-flagellation and Mozart’s persistent near-hysteria. Director Tama Matheson’s unfussy set and lighting design are at their best when the hanging panels of a Mozart score are beautifully shadowed by Mozart’s own hands as he conducts his work.

In the final scene, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem makes its predictable but welcome appearance. The movement, played in full, accompanies the silent action of the final moments, and Mozart’s music is at last treated with some fervour. As the narrative journey concludes, the production does manage to move us. There is both humour and pathos here, and if the characters have not always been completely engaging, at least the energy and commitment of the company are rewarded.

I must confess, I find Shaffer almost unforgivably contemptible for closing a script with the line: “mediocrity is everywhere: I absolve you”... What production could ever stand up to such philosophical meta-censure?

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