DIVINITY AND DEADLY HATRED
One day someone will put Milton’s Paradise Lost on stage and cast Rupert Everett as Satan, the bitter archangel. For now he is Peter Shaffer’s Salieri: court composer to Emperor Joseph of Austria. Here is a functionary ploddingly competent in his task of “ceremonializing the mediocrity” of a stultifying court, but who has dreamed childhood that he would write something transcendent and“blaze like a comet across Europe” to the glory of heaven. He made a bargain at sixteen with the deity of the frescoes in his native Italy: not the soppy compassionate long-haired Christs but the “old, candlesmoked God the Father.” He swore to do good works and be chaste in return for that divine gift.
God threw it back at him. Exalted music did spring in that 18th century court: a miracle of “crushed harmonies, glancing collisions, agonizing delights: an absolute beauty”. But it was not Salieri who wrote it but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: a childish, obscenely foul-mouthed, capering sensualist with a high infuriating giggle who “without even setting down his billiard cue” is somehow visited with music perfect, complete, and immortal. With still bitterer irony, it is Salieri himself who is first doomed to recognize its greatness while the court dullards say “too many notes”. Enraged at the unfairness like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, he sabotages and undermines the ebullient young man’s career and bring him to an early death.
The brilliance of Shaffer’s play, immaculately served by Jonathan Church’s cast, is not particularly in the plot – which is linear, a downhill slope – or even in the powerful raging jealousy of its antihero. It lies in the identification of a particular and individual agony: a man with deep belief in the transcendent and a gift of rare artistic perception who cannot rejoice in the art of another because it is not his own. Everett – tall, gaunt, hot-eyed, quivering with fastidious distaste for the clownish romping Mozart – expresses that “agonizing delight” in his finest stage performance to date. On the night I saw him he seemed to be fighting vocal problems, but in a performance this finely judged moments of hoarseness actually added to that terrible sense of discord, a croaking envy. Fits the play’s time-frame too: for this is an old, wispily grey man telling us his story. In unfussy transformations – a swift dark wig and a straightening back – rhe re-enacts the time 32 years before when his hatred flowered.
The play, though, does not all stand or fall only with this towering portrait. Joshua McGuire’s Mozart – a head shorter than the black-coated, pallid, square-browed Everett – is perfect; a rounded, rosy-lipped romping sensualist, irritating and shrill, flawed and human conduit for divine music (which Church uses judiciously, without the overkill which marred the film). In his last moments McGuire achieves profound pathos, as does Jessie Buckley as his wife Constanza: a little common, earthily sensible, defiantly devoted. All three performances shine; around them a perfectly judged court swirls and hisses, Simon Janes particularly funny as the philistine Emperor.
It is, altogether, a beautiful start for the recreated Festival theatre: Simon Higlett’s open design expresses with palatial simplicity both Mozart’s glittering splendour and Salieri’s imprisoning darkness: six glittering chandeliers rise and fall before tall dim windows, and the opening moment is a thing of masked, hissing figures: “Ssss…sssalieri…asssasssin…” around the bitter old man’s hooded chair. When Everett rises and conjures up the witnesses of history – us, curving around him in the great arena – the house lights go up . And we are, in the timeless theatrical miracle, involved.