Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

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BBC Radio 3, 2 January 2011
Originally broadcast in 1983, Peter Hall's production used the original Royal National Theatre cast, including Paul Scofield (Salieri), Simon Callow (Mozart), and Felicity Kendal (Constanze). This production of a "perfectly appalling" play - as Sunday Times critic James Fenton memorably and inaccurately described it on the premiere in 1979 - has been largely forgotten as a result of Milos Forman's celebrated 1987 film in which Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham took the leading roles. Abraham read a prose version of the story in a five-part adaptation broadcast on Radio 7 last year.
It was a pleasure to hear Scofield's world-weary Salieri, who accepted mediocrity as a way of life, a punishment for his treatment of Mozart. He narrated the plot out of duty, in a futile attempt to expiate his guilty feelings. Nothing could ever change for him, as he eventually became a "has-been," with little or nothing to show for his long career as a composer.
Hall approached Shaffer's play as a battle of wills between the suave, urbane Salieri playing Iago to Mozart's Othello. However this analogy did not quite work: Callow's Mozart was not a great Venetian general, but a wayward genius revelling in his intellectual and artistic brilliance. He despised Salieri - not for personal reasons, but because Salieri was such a mediocre artist, acquainted with musical theory but unable to translate it into memorable work. Nonetheless it was Salieri who received all the favours at court, proving beyond doubt that flattery holds sway in the corridors of power. Mozart was well aware of this, but has no means to intervene. His descent into poverty and madness was both inevitable and painful: Salieri held the keys to material and professional success, and refused point-blank to give Mozart a chance. While Salieri apparently emerged victorious, his triumph was at best a pyrrhic one, as Mozart's music reached dizzying heights of emotional and technical brilliance, culminating in the Reqiuem.
With these two musical gladiators monopolizing the action, Kendal's Constanze assumed a largely peripheral role, at once despairing of her husband's prospects yet fiercely protective of his reputation. She showed considerable strength of character, as she exposed Salieri as a fraud, more interested in taking her to bed than advancing Mozart's career. At the same time she understood the impregnability of Salieri's social position; her knowledge of his weaknesses could not be exploited to her advantage. The only course of action open to her was to continue supporting Mozart's efforts, even though well aware of the futility of her cause.
The National Theatre cast was uniformly solid; like a good cricket team it batted all the way down, with an oleaginous John Normington as King Joseph II and a clutch of advisors (Nicholas Selby, Willoughby Goddard, Basil Henson) willingly colluding with Salieri to end Mozart's career as a composer. Perhaps my only criticism focuses on the play, rather than the production; in its lack of substantial female roles - excepting that of Constanze - it strikes me as slightly misogynist, even while encouraging us to sympathize with Mozart's plight.

Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, adapted by Neville Teller and read by F. Murray Abraham