Back in the 80s, each term’s roster of shows would always include one that was designated the ‘OUDS Major’. It would have a big budget, a top director, and a clutch of Oxford’s best acting talent.
Clarendon Productions’ staging of Amadeus would have been the OUDS Major of this term. It was classy at every level: great fun, brilliantly original, wonderfully scored, wittily detailed, and helmed by performances that could give pros like Lucian Msamati, or even (going back to the original production) Paul Scofield a run for their money.
Coincidentally, there are two German-adjacent shows on this week, with Goethe’s Faust down the road at the Pilch. Faust and Amadeus are joined at the thematic hip, and Salieri is a genuine Faustian hero. Both start with the central character performing an invocation (Faust invokes Mephistopheles, while Salieri invokes the ghosts of the future). And both of them go on to forge a terrible pact: Faust with the Devil, and Salieri with God. The pact is to give them worldly success, but in the end, both are consigned to the flames. Whether your deal is with God or the Devil, you’re not going to win.
With Amadeus, playwright Peter Shaffer did to Antonio Salieri what Shakespeare did to Richard the Third. I wonder if they knew what mischief they were going to cause? Poor King Richard: despite inventing Legal Aid, tackling corruption and being the first leader to have laws written in English, he will always be the king who would have your head chopped off for making an insufficiently obsequious compliment. Likewise, the real Salieri was no patron saint of mediocrity. He was almost a child prodigy, being made court composer at the age of just 24, and his music is still performed around the world today. Okay, he’s not Mozart, but who is?
(I wonder if Shaffer saw in the Salieri/Mozart rivalry a reflection of his own relationship with his brother Anthony. While Peter wrote Equus and Amadeus, Anthony wrote Frenzy, Sleuth, and The Wicker Man. Imagine the sibling rivalry.)
In the lead role, Jo Rich lived up to his surname: he luxuriated in Salieri’s unctuous jealousy, and rolled out his overblown Italian mottos as if he was playing a Mafia don in an opera of The Godfather. Watching him, I felt that even if Salieri is a second-rate composer, he’s certainly a first-rate raconteur, and his verbal interpretations of music are poetically beautiful. Rich’s performance encapsulated the frustration of failure and the guilt of hollow victory.
As his unwitting nemesis Mozart, Poddy Wilson was a febrile mass of Tourette-like twitches and unbridled creativity. Where the original actor in this role, Simon Callow, played Mozart as a naughty boy who never grew up, Wilson brought an appreciation of neurodivergence to the role, and we could recognise Mozart as an autistic man stuck in a society that cannot and will not allow for his needs. In truth, it wasn’t Salieri who killed Amadeus. It was more like Murder on the Austrian Express: they all did it.
Everywhere you looked in this production there was something to enjoy, from minor characters occasionally strolling past in the visible backstage area, gazing as if through a window at the action on stage, to the miniature orchestra providing both score and background to the play’s events. I loved the foppish Court music officials, and Nicolas Rackow as the Emperor gleefully channelled Hugh Laurie from Blackadder III as the brainless but well-meaning monarch.
One fascinating feature of this production is its use of costume. There is clearly a big budget for frocks and wigs, and these have come straight from the National Theatre. But costume designer Effie Halstead has not stopped there. The costumes stretch forward in time from the late eighteenth century, and include details from the Victorian, Edwardian and even punk eras. It feels as though the design itself, like Salieri, is reaching out across the years to address the ghosts of the future, just as the Emperor pointedly pushes some audience members off their seats so he can have a good view of Mozart’s latest opera.
The one problem – and I think it’s just unavoidable – is that the music does frequently drown out the voices of the actors. To their credit, the production team have done everything possible to mitigate this: Salieri is equipped with a miniature microphone, and characters project as much as possible when competing with the music. But it does sadly mean that some of the dialogue is lost. This is only a minor issue. On the plus side, the music itself is divinely played, and the opera singing is stunningly accomplished.
The irony of Amadeus is that, for a play about mediocrity, it is just so damn good. This production is anything but mediocre. It’s a copper-bottomed hit, and the cheering at the end was almost enough to wake Faust’s Devil. Five stars.