Hailed the length and breadth of Europe as a prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was weaned on the pursuit of the sublime. As a young chap he's coarse and brash, given to boozing and womanizing, and yet he would rather die than compromise his music to suit the stuffy tastes of his patrons and their salons. When Mozart arrives in Vienna, court composer Antonio Salieri who is cursed with the talent of a third-rate composer but the ear of a maestro comes to believe God is mocking him. Now he seeks revenge on his Creator by systematically destroying the wunderkind.
Sneaky Rhobus Productions have taken on a tall order in this long (2 hours 45 mins including interval) drama with its weighty investigations into man's relationship with God, the nature of creative genius, and the corrosive effect of intense jealousy. Producer Ed Maclean has made things the more tricky for himself by choosing the tiny Burton Taylor space over the more spacious possibilities of, say, the O'Reilly or Moser Theatres. When the Emperor and his retinue are on stage, rather than seeming to inhabit the anterooms and echoing halls of the Schonbrunn Palace, they give the impression of folk struggling for elbow room at rush hour to get on the Oxford Tube to Marble Arch.
This is not a fatal problem, however, since the audience does get a close-up, warts-and-all look at the machinations of these courtiers in their powdered periwigs and knee breeches (nice work by costume designer Caitlin Jauncey), as they jostle for the favour of their Lord.
One disappointment to me was the music; the production balance between the spoken word and the music was imperfect. This is not a musical, sure, yet I was conscious throughout of being told about the birth of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni and this or that new divertissement, when what I really longed for was to be treated to more than the odd truncated few bars.
Newcomers to the play will of course be focusing their attention on Mozart and probably hoping for enlightenment as to just who was this figure steeped in apparently artless genius, from whom poured this torrent of music. The challenge for Chris Page in the title role is to reconcile the buffoonish elements of the man with his serious creativity - a tough ask. He copes manfully, never overdoing the horseplay, bringing out the hesitant naivety of youth and linking endearingly with his young wife Constanze (the very good Imogen Allen, a steadying yet touching presence). The support roles are performed satisfactorily, with I thought the pick of them being a confidently smarmy Rupert Stonehill as Salieri's stoolpigeon.
But Amadeus stands and falls on its Salieri; ever-present on stage as protagonist, watcher, plotter from the wings, devious backstabber in the palace. And the production is graced by a stunning performance from Stan Carrodus. At first a hunched old man in a wheelchair, later a deceptively calm figure at court, Mr Carrodus shows us the malevolence of old age and the boiling jealously of the established composer swept away into a musical void by the glorious talent of the young upstart. Yet this is no pantomime villain. Mr Carrodus is entirely natural, acting with mobile mouth and expressive face, his voice varying between conversational narrative asides to the audience, mouthing faux-avuncular encouragement to Mozart, seducing Constanze with his weasel tongue, and darting out sparingly-used bursts of rage. I didn't know whether to admire more Mr Carrodus' stamina - this is an exceedingly long role - or the way you could have heard a pin drop at the end as he pondered on his own guilt and death.
This is among the best three or four acting performances I've seen from dozens of student plays over the years. Just terrific!