by Peter Shaffer
Atlantic Theatre Festival
Wolfville, August 2000
Peter Shaffer's Amadeus is a script which is rapidly approaching the status of a warhorse. Showy, engaging, potentially spectacular, it's the kind of play companies who need an injection of popularity without obviously compromising their pretentions to seriousness can mount with some hope of box office rewards. That may well be why the financially strapped (these days, who's not?) Atlantic Theatre Festival selected it as part of this summer's repertoire.
It would appear, from the standing ovation accorded the show the night we were there, that it was a good business decision; on the other hand, it's not clear to me that either the script or the production merited the reception.
It's a clunky script, after all, requiring amazing production values to carry it off. The basic device -- the protagonist narrates his experience, which is dramatized around him while he shifts back and forth between the present, in which he's an Ancient Mariner, bound to tell us his tale of woe, and the tale itself, in which he's a much younger and more innocent version of himself, is not exactly guaranteed, by itself, to produce dramatic excitement. And although in this case the premise -- the philosophical question which drives the play, which boils down to "What kind of God uses a schmuck like Mozart as His Instrument to produce immortal masterpieces, while ignoring the aspirations of decent, hardworking folks like you and me and Antonio Salieri?" -- is a promising one, it turns out that the process of answering it is not exactly compelling. And the process by which Salieri, having decided that he's so offended by God's contrariness that he'll do his damnedest (as it were) to destroy His chosen Instrument, goes about carrying out that destruction, is rather more like watching somebody pull the wings off a fly than like, well, drama.
So what you need -- and what, in the hands of the original director, Peter Hall, you apparently got -- is a mesmerizing, dynamic, imaginative production. At Wolfville, well, we didn't get that. I don't want to suggest that it was a disaster -- far from it -- but it wasn't enough, for me and for a few other obdurate sitters-down, to make a flawed and clunky play into an evening of wonderful theater.
A good deal of the problem lies with the role of Salieri and Eric Schneider's take on it. A wonderful physical actor, Schneider elects to employ a husky, passion-laden -- perhaps overwrought -- delivery of his lines almost from the very beginning, which makes him not only difficult to understand but difficult to sympathize with. (No one near me in the audience understood, for example, his last line: "Mediocrities everywhere -- now and to come -- I absolve you all! Amen!") Salieri's recognition of God's supreme, indifferent injustice, and his own inescapable mediocrity don't grow on him, and us, so much as dominate him from his first appearance as an old man and from the moment he first hears Mozart's exquisite, transcendent music.
Another part has to do with the pace and timing of the direction. It seems clear that for the play to work, to engage us, the swirl of eighteenth-century Vienna needs to come alive all around Salieri, invoked by his words and subsuming everything. Shaffer said in his note to the original script, "it must be remembered that the action is wholly continuous," but somehow in this production it doesn't happen. This is partly because of decisions about blocking and entrances which seem to to separate Salieri from the world he is talking about, and perhaps partly because of Patrick Clarke's imaginative -- but, I thought finally limiting -- set. A high, mirrored back wall with a projecting vee of (also mirrored) double doors at the center reflected a couple of chandeliers and most of us in the audience. At the outset, I thought it an interesting notion, with some possibilities if the production played with reflections and multiple images (and it seemed to me that was quite likely, given Shaffer's script). But it wasn't to happen, and in general the set seemed more of a distraction than anything. Though some clever lighting managed to create effects such as ghostly white-tied audiences applauding behind the mirrored doors, in general not much was made of them, and the number of times when they had to be manually opened and closed to begin a new scene not only became distracting, but also further segmented the play into narrative bits and dramatized bits.
Finally, we wound up not having a great deal of sympathy either for Salieri or for Graham Percy's Mozart (it seemed that Percy and Tom Kerr, the director, couldn't really decide at what point we ought to begin developing sympathy for the poor uncivilized spoiled child, at the mercy of the malignant Salieri and the rest of the supersubtle court). The person who was most vividly and sympathetically presented was Natascha Girgis' delightful and vibrant Costanza -- but of course she's also the play's most unalloyed victim, and so our engagement with her doesn't lead to further engagement with the rest of the production.
And then there's the music. The first, wonderful description of Salieri's agonized, passionate response to Mozart's music leads us to believe -- or hope -- that one of the things the show will do is help us share that response. Unfortunately, in this production we get primarily snippets -- often competing (fairly successfully) with Shneider's passionate Salieri, so that we really can hear neither all that well. It seemed far from Shaffer's hope that we'd hear what he called "the sublime work of a genius being experienced by another musician's mind."
Still, I wouldn't want to suggest this ambitious production is not worth seeing or is unenjoyable. The Atlantic Theatre Festival should be proud of this accomplishment. But they shouldn't trust the standing ovations.