Snatches of Mozart’s sublime music run tantalisingly through Jonathan Church’s excellent revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, just as they haunt its protagonist Antonio Salieri. Shaffer gives us the viewpoint of the aged and near deranged Salieri, as the composer unburdens his guilty conscience to the audience, recalling the arrival of the prodigiously talented young Mozart at the Viennese court and his own paralysing envy. It’s guilty fun as a play – a baroque, melodramatic thriller – and it’s played to the hilt by Rupert Everett and Joshua McGuire, who revel, enjoyably, in the drama’s excesses while also delivering its poignancy.
Everett, at first sunken-faced, wispy-haired and shrunk into a wheelchair, transforms in an instant as he relives his tale, turning into his younger, more upright self: a smooth, punctilious individual whose musical ability and poise have earned him fame, fortune and a desirable position at court. All this becomes hollow with the arrival of Mozart, whose genius few at court are equipped to notice – except Salieri himself. He demonstrates how he blocks the younger man’s progress, ultimately, in his mind, contributing to Mozart’s early death, and how he rages at God, first for choosing a vulgar, potty-mouthed rapscallion to be his instrument on earth, and second, for allowing Salieri to pursue his vindictive path.
His account strains credibility, but then that is partly the point. We are seeing the delusional recollections of a mind tormented by jealousy. Everett is terrific as Salieri: as his character stoops to skulking, eavesdropping and blackmail, he expertly conveys his anguished mixture of self-obsession and self-loathing. He is perfectly counterpointed by McGuire’s giddy Mozart, whose first act is to reprise, from memory, Salieri’s pedestrian march composed to welcome him – and improve upon it. McGuire is excellent, locating his character’s impetuous, infantile behaviour in the same febrile energy that drives music through him, and he brings real pathos to the dying Mozart’s desperation to get his great Requiem on to the stave. There’s nice work from Simon Jones as the pompous, cloth-eared Emperor and Jessie Buckley as Mozart’s long-suffering wife.
The flashback structure is limiting, obliging Everett to narrate too much, as is the sometimes declamatory style, and the play’s baroque streak drives it over the top periodically. But Church’s handsome revival, elegantly housed on Simon Higlett’s set of ornate, translucent screens, handles this with great aplomb. It reopens the theatre, after a £22m refurbishment that has rendered it more flexible, light and spacious, with a flourish.