In my entire time at school, I enjoyed only two Music lessons: my last one, and the one where we watched Amadeus – the VHS of choice for a long-suffering Music teacher nearing the summer holidays. Since first seeing it in Mr Couldridge’s Year 9 class, I’ve loved it. Peter Shaffer’s play is endlessly inventive and contains some of the finest lines about the vitality and importance of music that have ever been put to paper. So no pressure, University College Players. Fortunately, they’ve more than risen to the challenge.
Director Priya Radhakrishnan’s take on the play opens with a huge deal of energy, courtiers and emperors dashing about in eclectic costumes. The ‘Salieri, Salieri’ opening felt off, until one realised Salieri (Eddie Holmes-Milner) was to the audience’s rear, which was an inventive choice but unfortunately made it harder to hear. Still, this didn’t last long and soon Holmes-Milner was in full swing, slipping between the old and young Salieri with all the enthusiasm of a man who really didn’t want to spend the whole play pretending to have a hunchback.
Holmes-Milner’s performance was marvellous. Early in the play comes the iconic ‘voice of an obscene child’ speech which introduces Mozart. Holmes-Milner pitched Salieri’s reaction perfectly: not too comic as to distract, but not too venal as to turn the audience immediately against him. His masterful clarity, even when fighting with a slightly lilting Italian accent, was pitched perfectly; and his later railings against God, Mozart and (I suspect) internally against the rather inclement weather identified him as a real talent. His sly confidence, sense of fading aristocratic haughtiness and frustrated mediocrity made him one half of an outstanding central duo.
The other half of that, of course, is Mozart. It’s a tough role. Shaffer’s take is an unlikeable childish narcissist, with a laugh like a cat violently disagreeing with a chalkboard. Fortunately, Tom Fisher’s Mozart was fantastic: a manic live-wire, he was constantly reacting, changing and giggling. Fisher was as outrageous as necessary, and powerfully and tragically mad when he had to be. It was one of the most confident and artful performances I’ve seen in a long time, and he should be lauded for making such a cad so sympathetic.
He’s aided by Olivia Krauze as a superb Constanze, who beautifully brought out the melancholy passion of a woman cursed by that pesky Cupid to love a childish genius. Together, the three make the closing parts of the second half a tour de force: Salieri’s heretical hatred, Constanze’s ailing love and Mozart’s unhinged brilliance all combined for a powerful finale. They were aided by the weather, which chose to unleash a tremendous gust of wind during the climax of the play. Though this destroyed half the set and made Krauze look ever so slightly like Kate Bush on a wiley moor, it showed, contrary to Salieri’s intonations, that the production clearly had the Almighty on its side.
The rest of the cast did well, especially the two Venticellos (Matt Kenyon and Dorothy McDowell), and Ariel Levine deserves a mention for his great turn as the foppish and foolish Emperor Joseph. But what must really be praised is the excellence of the musical accompaniment. Elsa Shah’s musical direction and band give a beautiful live rendition of Mozart at his finest, and the opera sequences were a particular delight. It was privilege to be sat so close to such a beautiful arrangement.
All in all then, we were treated to a great cast, with great music, and some inadvertently entertaining bad weather. Much better than any Music lesson. Sorry, Mr Couldridge.