A note of envy

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Timothy Ramsden Timothy Ramsden talks to director Chris Monks about his revival of Peter Shaffer's classic drama.

There's live singing in this revival of Peter Shaffer's drama about the envy of successful composer Salieri towards newly arrived young Wuenderkind Mozart at Emperor Joseph II's Court in late 18th-century Vienna. Mozart's vocal pieces will be sung by a local choir. This is theatre-in-the-round's answer to Shaffer's visually ornate setting. Yet there's an irony here.

Visiting Joseph II's Schonbrunn Palace, director Chris Monks found a superficiality in the rococo magnificence, contrasting the imperishable beauty of Mozart's music.

The action's set in the Enlightenment, when science and political thought were moving away from religion. Salieri, though, believes in an Old Testament God of vengeance. Coming from the merchant class, the future composer bargains with this God, "with dealers' eyes", that he saw in church paintings, images more powerful than the "simpering" Christs nearby.

Salieri and Mozart were only six years apart in age - in life, apparently good colleagues, says Monks. He has cast a youthful-looking 32-year-old, Nick Haverson, as the genius, and 36-year old Conrad Nelson as Salieri, whose material success contrasts Mozart's poverty.

Yet it is the younger composer who brought divine music into earthly existence. Salieri wants music to bring fame. His appetites are suggested in his choice of barber and pastry cook. His punishment is to know his own mediocrity.

The older composer's references to death and to the audience as fellow mediocrities increase as the action progresses. Monks says it is important that audiences understand and sympathise with Salieri as well as with the often painful-to-live-with young genius: "We all strive for material things."

There are other modern resonances. Mozart has been described as composition's first freelancer: does patronage of, or by, institutions produce the best Art? How is Art to be judged? Mozart's work is said to have too many notes; later, his widow lived by selling his manuscripts by the number of notes per page.

The play's voices are male-dominated, allowing Mozart, the only man "with a feminine side" to stand out. Constanze Mozart (nee Weber) is the only woman who speaks, though Monks allows the composer's pupil Katherina to sing.

Katherina, Monks believes, has to suggest someone experienced in society.

By contrast, Constanze begins as "socially naive, becoming more sophisticated in her thoughts as the action proceeds".

Amadeus By Peter Schaffer. New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. May 7-29. Tel: 01782 717962

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