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In tune with genius

Judith Palmer on a playwright's dealings with an unjust God

Amadeus By Peter Shaffer Pitlochry Festival Theatre Perthshire

"I wanted fame - I wanted to blaze like a comet," admits Viennese Court Composer Antonio Salieri, at the start of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. Like an 18th-century Pop Idol wannabe, Salieri dreams of becoming one of music's household names. He makes a Faustian pact with God, promising he'll lead a virtuous life, in return for a celebrity career. Salieri gets the desired fame, without the talent to warrant it, but the intelligence to realise the hollowness of his undeserved recognition.

"The big mistake is to see Amadeus as a battle between Mozart and Salieri. Mozart is really just a pawn in Salieri's battle with an unjust God who doesn't reward the virtuous," says Richard Baron, director of a new production of Amadeus at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

"Pretty much everybody has seen the film, so the story has lost some of its shock value," he says. "I was reading the original reviews from 1979, and many critics then saw Shaffer's 'shit-talking' portrayal of Mozart as a real travesty and very outrageous.

"Shaffer was a theatrical innovator. He delights in playing with techniques and using props inventively, and the ensemble work is marvellous, such as where the participants at Mozart's funeral become the crowd applauding Salieri," says Baron. "My favourite moment is where Mozart starts playing Salieri's banal plodding march and transforms it into a tune from the Marriage of Figaro - you get a flash of Mozart's brilliance and it's a wonderful way of setting up the hostility between them."

One of the hardest things to get across is Mozart's slide into decline. "You're suddenly told he's ill, and the actor has two minutes to get sympathy for the character," explains Richard Baron. "In rehearsals we didn't have the music, but once you've got the snatches of the Requiem Mass playing, you realise Shaffer has very cleverly found a way to let the music do some of the work."

Amadeus is in rep until October 20 at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire, Scotland PH16 5DR. Box office: 01796 484626www.pitlochry.org.uk

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