Joe Spence's performance as Salieri was one of the stronger points of the showBea Cadwaller

Amadeus is an incredibly ambitious play to put on – it is a spiderweb of intricately detailed and subtly layered themes of jealousy, fame and vengeance against the backdrop of 18th Century Austria. To keep a hold on all these elements while trying to tell a good story is certainly a daunting task, and one for which director Hazel Lawrence deserves plaudits for undertaking. Unfortunately, simply having the courage to put on a difficult play does not make that play any easier to put on, and this particular production, while showcasing some impressive individual performances, does not quite manage to pull it off.

Much of what was positive about this production came from Joe Spence in the lead role of Salieri. The aura that he projected in the role made him easy to watch, and he could hold the audience’s attention for lengthy periods without even moving. Of course, Shaffer’s script makes this job much easier for him, but he certainly deserves credit for bringing it to life. At times, he struggled with the scenes of Salieri as an old man, as it often felt like he was playing two completely different characters, but this was a minor issue in a very strong performance. Sam Knights also deserves huge credit in the role of Emperor Joseph; every time he came onstage, the production was lit up by his comic timing. Additionally, Emma Blacklay-Piech was fantastic as Constanze, tracking her character arc with skilful subtlety to deliver a tear-jerking monologue towards the end. Tim Vaughn as Mozart is likely to divide opinion, and indeed I am divided myself. At times he was excellent at bringing out the comedy and silliness of the role, but he often failed to develop his character in the more emotionally charged scenes.

His performance sums up one of the main underlying problems with the production – that it tried to plaster over its lack of depth with comedy. It felt throughout as though the director was either intimidated or afraid of the larger themes behind the production, as they were only brought out at a superficial surface level. Failing to plumb the depths of the play sufficiently, it seems as though the director decided that the gaping holes could be covered up by making the audience laugh. This seemed to be a clear objective in the first half, where it seemed as though I were watching a straight comedy. Strange and frankly baffling decisions such as dressing up men as women were used as comic devices in clear desperation. There was no depth and no foreshadowing of the coming darkness. It was in the second half that these problems were fully exposed, as none of the characters (perhaps excluding Emma Blacklay-Piech) were quite able to manage the emotional scenes. Unfortunately for the production, there were far less jokes written into the second half, so it was unable to sustain itself. The half dragged on and became extremely dull.

This could have been averted somewhat by more effective blocking. Countless times the actors were simply standing in a line along the front of the stage, and for most of the second half, the back two thirds of the stage were completely unused. This was such a shame considering there was a very impressive and elaborate piece of set at the back to work with. Many creative opportunities were lost, and it felt like somewhat lazy directing, where Salieri would always be placed on stage left and Mozart on stage right. There was no depth, and it felt oddly two dimensional. The director should perhaps consider using different levels on the stage to reflect the differing power dynamics that are so prominent in the play. There were some fantastic opportunities lost.

The set was very impressive. It consisted of several eighteenth century style pillars in a semi circle around a flexibly bare centre stage. At the back were a short flight of stairs that were used for entrances and exits. It was also very impressive that they managed to acquire a wooden grand piano for use as the harpsichord. However, this set was not utilised to its full potential. The bare stage in front was changed for most of the scenes – benches, chairs and tables were brought on to change the location. This would have been fine, but it was done by the stage managers, (obviously dressed in the techy black clothes) who would change the set in the background of the scenes. Not only did this look unprofessional, but it also seemed like an issue that would be very easy to fix, as they could have simply been given clothing to make them look like servants.

By and large the lighting was a success – there were plenty of lighting cues, but they certainly worked to convey the different atmospheres of different scenes. While I’m not normally a fan of filters, they were used to great effect here. The lighting in the climactic scene between Salieri and Mozart was not quite at the same standard as the rest of the production, as often their faces were in complete darkness, but the overall quality was high. Sound design was also a success – the different Mozart pieces played throughout the production certainly brought it to life and placed it in the era.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that there were a few excellent performances in a production that was sub-par. Joe Spence and Emma Blacklay-Piech are the standout performers and do excellent jobs, so it would be unfair to be overly critical of the production as a whole. Having said that, there were several baffling and bordering on outrageous directorial decisions that crippled the production. As a result, the performance crumbled more and more as it crawled towards its finale – it was as though the safeguards set up in the first half were being torn away one by one. With the comedy and big cast scenes gone, the large, thematic-shaped hole at the centre of the production consumed what was left.

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