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blog for February 18, 2017

Amadeus at the National Theatre

The last time I saw Amadeus, the play (1979) by Peter Shaffer (1926-2016)  was in 1979 when it premiered at the National Theatre in London (later moved into the West End).  That was the last time it appeared there until last year, shortly before (or after?) Shaffer died – in June 2016.  I saw it last month (January, 2017) but audiences around the world could see it live on TV on February 2. 

In 1979 I was on my way home from a safari in Kenya, suffering with from the onslaughts of a bacteria with a name like an Italian opera diva – so I found out when I checked in at the Toronto General Hospital  (the Tropical Diseases Unit) on my return.  I had four days stopover in London and lived on Immodium while I stubbornly attended theatre (the new musical Cats was another prize).  I remembered this personal aside because I had a flu bug that ran its course in microcosm while I was there this time.  When one is sufficiently distracted, one can (almost) ignore one’s physical state.  I enjoyed the production even more than the first time because it was even better.

The play and the movie won a hitherto unprecedented number of awards,  and it’s old and revered enough that you are probably well acquainted with it, so I won’t dwell.  This new production, directed by Michael Longhurst, is spectacular. Where past productions, both stage and film, relied on a sound track to illustrate Mozart’s music under discussion and attack by the composer’s jealous contemporary, Antonio Salieri, this staging incorporated 6 opera singers and 20 members of the Southhland Sinfonia orchestra live, on stage, along with the 16 actors.  And the players interacted with the actors!  Dazzling!

Lucian Msamati, playing Salieri,  impressed me with his power, but some of my theatre companions thought he played too large starting at the top of his emotional pain.  The story, you may remember, portrays Salieri as intensely jealous of Mozart’s genius (not historically accurate but beside the point).  But the play begins at the top of his angst when the character has tried to commit suicide and confesses to a priest his guilt for having killed Mozart – killed by neglect and lies. Where can he go but down?  And he does, painfully.  in the film Salieri calls himself the “patron saint of mediocrity”.  (I checked.) In the play he calls himself the “king of mediocrity”. I noticed because I relate to that pain. I wrote in my diary that night that I was the “queen of mediocrity”.   It’s very hard, not just for me but for any artist (writer, composer, poet, whatever) to admire and defer to other creators who are SO MUCH BETTER THAN I WILL EVER BE.   I have long since acknowledged the need for a compost heap in the Garden of Creation. Perhaps I can help to fertilize the pile.

Do you know that poem by Clive James that begins:

"The book of my enemy has been remaindered,

And I am pleased."

I try not to be, though, and I am always warm in my praise of other creators – perhaps with a few exceptions.  I won’t tell who.