By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Thursday 1st February 2018
This was something of a disappointment. Given the high standard of some of his previous performances, we were looking forward to seeing Lucien Msamati as Salieri, as well as revisiting this excellent play in a different production. The reviews had been very good, although we hadn’t read any of the details, so it was only as we took our seats that the potential problems became apparent. Still, we kept our minds as open as possible and restrained our expectations: even so, I found myself revising my rating of the experience down and down again. Steve enjoyed it more than I did – he would have given it 7/10 – but we were largely in agreement with the overall standard. So was the paying public, it would seem, as this matinee was only just over half full, leaving large swathes of empty seats in the circle, rear stalls and sides.
First, the description. The set was clearly modern. A large gauze curtain screened the rear of the stage at the start, positioned about half-way back, and lit to be opaque. In the gloom, we could just see some odd-shaped items round the sides, which turned out to be pillars on wheeled plinths and a make-up area for quick changes. A wide lighting rig was hanging down in front of the screen to about coat rack height – not that any coats were hanging from it – and a long grand piano was placed front right: I wasn’t close enough to read the small sign, black with white letters, which stood on the closed lid, but I suspect it would have been one of those ‘please do not leave drinks etc. on top of this piano’ requests.
Apart from this, there was a row of the old-fashioned shell-shaped theatre lights round the front of the stage. Suddenly the crew, dressed in the regulation black, began to set the stage up, bringing on chairs for the musicians, moving the piano to the side, lifting the lighting rig up etc. The musicians began to arrive, also wearing modern dress, also black, and gradually set up their instruments. A music stand was placed centre front, and we had a small laugh when a pizza delivery chap came on – he left the ‘pizza’ box on the stand.
While all this setting up was going on, with the musicians playing snippets of music and tuning up, two people, also in black, began the “I don’t believe it” opening lines. (Typing this now, I realise how skilfully this was done, as without their specific delivery of the words, this sounds like the opening to Victor Meldrew: The Musical.) They had come on wheeling big blue trollies, but as the process of passing the gossip round the stage proceeded, these trollies were removed by others. When the gossipers mentioned the name “Salieri”, there was a pause, and the platform behind the gauze screen was lit, with some people in modern dress moving about on it.
I was finding this a bit jumbled, but then the group at the front parted and Salieri was there, in his wheelchair, ready to begin his opening speech. He wore an old-fashioned gown and sat in a period-looking wheelchair with a very upright back. I had forgotten that his opening lines were in Italian, and unfortunately Lucien’s accent meant that I took longer to figure out what he was saying. I hoped it was a temporary problem, but as it turned out, this would hinder my understanding of his lines throughout the play, though not so much in the ‘quiet’ scenes.
However, this wasn’t one of those scenes: with the musicians now assembled and ready to go, there would be little point in having them sitting idle all this while! So extra music had been composed – composed, mind you, not taken from the genius composer’s own work – to fill in OVER THE DIALOGUE. Between Lucien’s accent and the music – not to my taste, mostly modern mish-mash to my ears – I had a job following these early stages. The venticelli – the two who had started off the initial gossip – came back on, and I noticed one of them, Sarah Amankwah, held a flute, but whether she also played in the band, I have no idea; she certainly isn’t listed as part of the Southbank Sinfonia in the program.
From my description so far, it may seem that I was already so out of love with this production that I might be thinking of leaving at the interval. Not so: despite these issues, I was starting to get into the production’s style, tuning in to Salieri’s English dialogue, and waiting to see whether the mix of modern and period dress would work or not. When Salieri addressed himself to “the ghosts of the future”, I realised that was what the production was giving us, the sense of being that future audience not only for the character of Salieri but also for Shaffer’s play itself, now over thirty-five years old. I was happy.
The pizza box turned out to contain sweet treats for Salieri: the second violin took the now redundant box off the music stand and placed it under the seats. Salieri’s comment about having been trained in invocation by Gluck got a laugh, and he went into a semi-fit as he began to invoke our presence. The house lights went up – more laughter at his success – and gradually faded after his initial chat with us. At this point I felt we were watching a rehearsed reading production, but that would soon change.
With Salieri’s invocation over, the focus of the play moved to historical Vienna, and from this point on the rest of the cast were in period costume, apart from the Sinfonia musicians. Salieri leapt from his chair, threw off his gown, and was helped into a sober coat by his valet, while the pizza delivery man turned out to be Salieri’s cook. The chairs were moved so that the musicians could take up a different formation and the gauze curtain was lifted to reveal a proscenium arch behind framing a raised stage with a detailed backdrop of formal architecture. The pillars were also brought on and placed on either side, and as the musicians were taking their places, Salieri discussed the role of musicians and composers in Vienna at that time.
I found this part quite boring. With all the movement, Salieri seemed more like a host on some live TV show who had to chat to the audience to cover a scene change. He didn’t really have a chance to engage with us for this part, and although it wasn’t bad, it didn’t sparkle with wit nor develop our understanding of the period, as we’ve seen in previous productions. We were ‘treated’ to a burst of Salieri’s hit opera, The Stolen Bucket, at which several of the musicians held their heads in their hands. Salieri looked round at their responses and grimaced – more laughter.
Now that Salieri’s position and the period setting had been established, they moved on to his first encounter with Mozart’s music. The stage was cleared and a swagged curtain dropped down on the left of the platform stage, while the obligatory high-backed chair was brought on front left. The music was just as wonderful as I remembered, and my eyes were moist in the early stages of the piece. However, I found the energy of the scene had dissipated by the time Salieri had finished his own description of the music’s effect, so when we were introduced to the actual person of Mozart, I didn’t find the contrast between the music and the personality of its composer so striking.
Adam Gillen was playing Mozart in a suitably childish manner, but with added modern touches, such as his hand gestures and his ‘antiqued’ trainers. While this no doubt telegraphed the message that Mozart was ultra-modern for his day, I felt this was another of those half-finished ideas which wasn’t carried through properly: after all, if they were going to be anachronistic with costume and movement, why not go the whole hog and have an Amadeus rap as well? And if not that, then the clash between his actual music and the performance was too strident for me to take him seriously. This Mozart was basically an ADHD brat* from the present day who had been plonked down in the eighteenth century, and while this might have helped explain his behaviour – does it need an explanation? – it didn’t work for me within this particular play. (*Not all those with ADHD are brats, just to be clear.)
The performance rattled along quite nicely for a while after this. We were introduced to the various court officials involved with Joseph II’s music: in this production the role of Count Johann Killan Von Strack became a Johanna, ably played by Alexandra Mathie. But all of the officials and the Emperor himself were excellent, and my only regret was that we didn’t get more of them. During Salieri’s welcome march for Mozart, that young man stood by a lackey front left. He picked up the tune very quickly, moving his fingers along with Salieri’s playing and showing amusing signs of boredom at the repetitions. He gave a double thumbs-up to Salieri at the end, showing he had some sense of how to behave in polite society.
For the opening act of Mozart’s first comic opera, the band sat in an orchestral semi-circle facing the front and that part of the stage sank down slightly. The singers came on at the sides, dressed in period costume, and indulged in the broad poses and gestures which were prevalent at that time (poor lighting meant actors and singers had to ‘big it up’ so the audience could see what was going on). Joseph II was suitably bored – “too many notes” – and there was a lovely reaction from the leading soprano (Salieri’s former pupil whom Mozart had nicked, and bedded) when Mozart introduced his fiancée, Constanze.
Salieri had been comforting himself all this while that Mozart had only produced one good piece of music, but when he heard another brilliant composition by the younger man, he realised that he’d been wrong. The orchestra, singer and conductor (Mozart) were on the stage platform, which came forward into strong lighting to let us hear (and see) Mozart’s work. Then Salieri was at the front of the stage, the platform slid back, and with the lights lowered, Salieri decided to challenge God and bring down Mozart. His passions proved too much for him, and he had to be helped off in his wheelchair while the rest of us took a break – interval.
The stage was cleared during the interval, but the piano was brought back for the restart. The musicians also arranged themselves towards the front of the stage, with several taking selfies – I forgot to mention that at least one selfie was taken before the start as well. One singer stood on a chair with arms outstretched, and then they started playing screechy notes from various instruments, combined with repetitive movements from the singers. I found this dreadfully boring at the time, although there was a payoff later (insufficient, in my view).
Salieri was wheeled back on during some ‘singing’ of “miaow” sounds, and after far too long, began to talk to us again. His line about the cats singing Rossini got a good laugh, although I have heard a bigger response in productions that omitted the dreary preparation.
Moving on with the play, Salieri managed to get a non-entity assigned to teach the Princess Elizabeth, and that gentleman actually made a brief appearance this time, just long enough to celebrate his good luck: we laughed. Salieri had decided to discard his restraint, and while he changed into gaudier attire, the band played more modern stuff, accompanied by some strange choreography which I found even more boring than the last lot. They did just about everything except twerking, and they probably couldn’t do that because they had to play their instruments.
The final coup de grace in Salieri’s plotting was to persuade Mozart to include Masonic rituals in an operetta, and so at last we got to hear at least some of The Magic Flute. Modernised at first (oh dear), they segued into the proper stuff, and the singing was absolutely marvellous. The singers were being moved around on the pillars – it was all pretty surreal at this point, but then, so is The Magic Flute – and it was wonderful while it lasted. At some point during this, Count Orsini-Rosenberg slapped Mozart on his way past, which was funny.
Mozart’s suffering and Salieri’s continued pretence at friendship were OK but not great, and I noticed that the rest of the cast were gradually changing into modern black outfits again. By the end, only Mozart and Salieri were still in period costumes, and I was longing for the performance to end. Mozart’s death was emphasised with shafts of light, and his body was carried off on the piano, followed by most of the musicians and cast, leaving only a smallish band on stage. But the orchestra returned, Salieri’s success was feted amid a shower of gold confetti, and with the platform moved forward he indulged in a childish chant of “I’m going to be famous after all”. The final throat-cutting was unsuccessful, at least as far as Salieri was concerned, and after bandaging him up, the rest of the cast and musicians left Salieri alone to give us his final benediction.
I was very relieved when it finished, and although there were plenty of people standing around us, I felt no inclination to join in (with the standing – I did applaud). We’ve seen this play in four different productions now – I’m counting the original National version and the West End transfer as just one production, despite the cast changes – and this was much weaker than all of them in my view. The modern music didn’t add anything, the Brechtian nature of the design weakened the intensity of the piece, and while Lucien’s performance was good overall, I still found his accent getting in the way of the lines. The best bits were the scenes where the music didn’t interfere with the dialogue, allowing the actors to develop some momentum, and of course the beautifully sung sections of The Magic Flute. There were several moments of humour too, some built-in, some added, which always helps.
However, the biggest drawback was that I found the orchestra very disappointing. Having the musicians on stage may have seemed a good idea at the time – and if they hadn’t been so constantly in motion I might have enjoyed their presence more – but someone clearly forgot that musical instruments under lights tend to de-tune, leading to an increasing discordancy which made much of the music unpleasant to listen to. Yes, I’ll say that again: I found much of the live music played during this performance unpleasant to listen to. Not because it was new work, or in a style which I dislike, but simply because the orchestra were slightly out of tune! For previous productions of this play, I have left the theatre determined to hear more of Mozart’s work: I found it exhilarating to listen to. Based on this afternoon’s efforts, I wouldn’t give you tuppence for the collected works, and that is such a shame.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me