Rupert Everett as Salieri in Amadeus? It’s a characteristically canny piece of programming by artistic director Jonathan Church and an eminently fitting conjunction of talents with which to reopen the main house at Chichester after its handsome £22m refurbishment.
Everett has done some of his best recent work under the auspices of this outfit – including, in a Chichester co-production of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, his incomparable portrayal of Oscar Wilde. Peter Shaffer’s long association with the Festival Theatre and its distinctive thrust-stage goes back to its earliest days under Laurence Olivier and the spectacular 1964 staging of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Key alumni of different generations converge and mark the occasion with style.
The revamped theatre, I’m delighted to report, is a splendidly enhanced version of its old self, with more spacious foyers, a greater feeling of openness to the rolling parkland, and a better raked auditorium that now has 100 extra seats but seems to wrap you in a more compelling embrace round the epic (and newly flexible) stage.
With its sweeping operatic theatricality, Amadeus is ideal material for showing off the boosted technical prowess of the venue and Simon Higlett conjures up the Viennese court (and the skewed subjective point of view from which we see it) with a beautiful design of overbearing chandeliers, tarnished translucent screens and a marble floor whose pattern echoes the hexagonal shape of the theatre.
In Church’s flamboyant, thriller-ish production, Everett cuts an imposing, darkly saturnine figure as Salieri, the hack court composer who is tormented with jealousy at the seemingly effortless genius of Mozart and declares war on God for choosing to speak through a potty-mouthed upstart rather than through him.
Witty languor is this actor’s usual element. Here, though, switching between old age and his remembered prime, the character has to operate as our guide and drive the melodramatic revenge plot forward. The potential mismatch of qualities proves, in fact, to be an asset.
The fastidious hauteur of Everett’s sleekly urbane Salieri widens the blackly comic gap between the composer’s public self and his private sense of being the ludicrous butt of one of the deity’s crueller jokes – granted a unique responsiveness to Mozart’s genius and humiliated still further with worldly success.
Conveying the agony of this demeaning petty side of Salieri’s portentous vengeance is one way that Everett puts his intelligent stamp on a role whose great interpreters have included Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen and David Suchet.
The play often lapses into the Higher Schlock, with its relentless antitheses that sound like those you used to get in Hollywood trailers: “he from the ordinary created legends – and I from legends created only the ordinary”. Pass the popcorn. And the simplistic notion that Mozart was God’s direct (and wildly incongruous) conduit says less about the composer than about the crude oppositions in which this drama trades.
But within those terms, Joshua McGuire gives a superb performance – with shades of Tom Hollander and the late lamented Rik Mayall in the whinnying maniacal pleasure this hyperactive overgrown baby takes in his supreme gift and in his fart jokes. Recommended.Reuse content