Peter Shaffer's plays pose a problem for directors and actors; his writing is extremely prescriptive, with detailed directions on movement, music, design and costume that leave anyone who revives his work very little freedom for manoeuvre or interpretation. How about this one: Count Orsini-Rosenberg enters upstage and is suddenly standing between the Venticelli, listening. He is unobserved by Mozart. He wears a waistcoat of bright green silk, and an expression of supercilious interest.
This authorial control-freakery may explain why brilliant plays such as Amadeus, Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun have been revived less frequently than they deserve. To my mind, Amadeus, which was premiered at the National Theatre in 1979, is easily the best of the three, and should be in the list of the top ten British plays of the last 50 years. For any aspiring playwright trying to write a historical drama, it should be at the top of the reading list.
Jonathan Church's production at the newly reopened Chichester Festival Theatre wisely doesn't try to reinvent or improve on the original concept of the play. He realises the debt he owes to the original production, directed by Peter Hall, and doesn't try to tinker with a masterpiece in which, as in Mozart's music, every little note and every line is perfectly placed.
I missed the original production in 1979 with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow as Salieri and Mozart, as I was working abroad. (I did see the original productions of The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus, a few years earlier). But I did see David Suchet and Michael Sheen in a revival of Amadeus at the Old Vic in the 1990s. This time it's is the turn of Rupert Everett and Joshua McGuire, brilliantly supported by a cast that includes Jessie Buckley (a wonderful Miranda at the Globe last year) as Constanze. Everett is a masterly presence as Salieri, making him a man whose battle with God gives him a heroic dimension and a level of self-awareness that all the other characters on stage, even Mozart, lack. The trick of Shaffer's play is to present Salieri's real conflict as not with his musical rival but with the Almighty, opening up a drama that transcends petty human jealousy. McGuire, small, white-wigged, irritating and tiggerish, is the perfect foil, combining his character's anally-fixated childish vulgarity with total belief in his own creative powers. He knows he is a genius, and Salieri is a mediocrity, but so does Salieri; their conflict has nothing to do with rival conceptions of music. Mozart fails to perceive Salieri's inner conflict, seeing him only as a benefactor, and this generates a rich level of dramatic irony for the audience, which sees the story from a quite different perspective, as Salieri tells it himself.
The rest of the cast are equally well chosen; among them is Chichester veteran John Standing (born 1934), playing Orsini-Rosenberg. I now realise I saw him on the same stage in 1966 in an unforgettable production of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, in which he played Yepikhodov in a cast that included Celia Johnson as Ranevskaya and Tom Courtenay and Ben Kingsley in other parts.
Chichester in its early triumphant years was the place where I first saw professional theatre as a schoolboy, and it's a huge thrill to go back there and see the theatre refurbished and gleaming after a closure of more than a year. The elderly audience for the midweek matinee I saw did not leap out of its seats for a standing ovation, but that is not the Chichester style. When this outstanding production makes it to London, as it surely will, theatregoers will be begging for tickets. But anyone who has the slightest chance of seeing it in the round, with Simon Higlett's design, should try to make it to Chichester this summer.