Rock Me Amadeus!

When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).

Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.

So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.

Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.
Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.

Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean,  it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life.  Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!

But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:

Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!

the_magic_flute

 

Theatre Review: Classics Revisited

Over the holidays, we had the opportunity to compare and contrast two children’s classics performed onstage. ‘Peter Pan’ at the National Theatre and ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ (based on Alice in Wonderland) in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Zoonation. Instead of giving you my personal reviews of the two shows, I will let my older son do the talking. This is the one who likes both watching and participating in theatrical productions, but usually merely grunts: ‘Yeah, fine’ when I ask him what he thinks of something. For you, dear blog readers, he has agreed to be more eloquent on this occasion…

Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk
Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk

Peter Pan

‘The pictures advertising the show and the set we saw when doing the backstage tour earlier that day made me expect a very modern version of Peter Pan, but actually it was just the usual old one, with very few extra twists. Yes, Mrs. Darling played Captain Hook, and the staging was very modern, full of recycled materials, but I was hoping for some alternative storytelling. Perhaps the Lost Boys could have been from a deprived council estate, struggling to grow up and find things to play with. The pirates could have been a drug gang.

I also found the whole musical thing unnecessary. The lyrics were bad and barely audible, and the songs themselves were not very hummable or memorable. It was also muddled about exactly what age group it was for: too serious for little ones, but too many childish jokes for older ones.

OK, maybe I’m being a bit grumpy because I was tired after a whole day in London and had a bit of a headache. There were some good bits: the performances were generally good, especially Captain Hook; there were some really funny moments (Tinkerbell); and the flying and special effects and sets and props were all great.’

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

From the Evening Standard.
From the Evening Standard.

‘This was the exact opposite of the Peter Pan show: very original idea of setting the characters in an asylum and showing all sorts of mental health issues. It was unexpected, but executed very well, mostly through hip-hop dancing. The message is not told to you: you have to deduce it. Wonderland is the place that accepts all people, with all disabilities, but not everyone wants to go there.

It was all far too dark for the younger kids in the audience though, but if you were at least 10 or over, it was very good fun. Great music, very acrobatic and energetic dancing, and, though it was quite sad in the first half, it finished in a very upbeat way. They could have pulled fewer people on the stage at the end, though, as it was a bit embarrassing for them, but other than that… Really liked it! Sick!’

Peter Pan is playing until the 4th of February at the National Theatre (Olivier), while The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (Roundhouse) closes after the 22nd of January.

 

 

The Threepenny Opera

Earlier this month, as a reward for all of the hard relocation work, I treated myself to a play at the National Theatre. It was an old favourite of mine, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, in a new translation by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, with Rory Kinnear as Macheath. It was a canny blend of cabaret, jazz, dissonance and va-va-voom to infuriate and entertain. Not quite the escapism one might wish for in a play, but then Brecht was never about making the audience feel good.

From Official London Theatre website.
From Official London Theatre website.

Of course, the play is made for London and its inhabitants. The original story by John Gay (1728), was set among the whores, pimps and criminals of Newgate, full of allusions to the streets of the East End, satirizing politics, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. Much of it still sounds familiar today. Of course, Brecht took it a step further: from Gay’s romantic comedy, laced with social commentary, he turned his Threepenny Opera (and let’s not forget that Elisabeth Hauptmann was practically a co-author for this, but has since been denied credit) into an acerbic social critique, with elements of romantic comedy.Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean a quick fumble and a slap… But there certainly was plenty of social commentary to make in Berlin in 1928, when it premiered. It was performed continuously until 1933, when Brecht had to go into exile, but had already become an international success by that point.

With the world increasingly resembling the 1930s, this play is more topical than ever, and this energetic production points out parallels to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything-but-meritocracy promotion systems, inward-looking little England patriotism and flagrant social inequality without ramming the messages down your throat.

The two elderly ladies sitting next to me were muttering under their breath: ‘Really, is all this bad language necessary?’ but to my mind, yes, it is. Brecht’s original exuberance and desire to shock are all intact, even if some of the texts and storyline have been altered . This is all about over-the-top characters and situations (I particularly liked the red wool pouring out of wounds when a character was knifed). It’s all about filth and squalor, nasty characters chock-full with self-interest. The production even stuck to the original orchestra of just 7 musicians, which gave the musical interludes and singing a dissonance and drama that fitted so well with the on-stage action.

From Exeunt Magazine.
From Exeunt Magazine.

Confession time: although I’ve never seen the Threepenny Opera performed live on stage before, I’ve been obsessed with it since 1990. I read the libretto and the later novel by Brecht based on it (in which he does go on and on, rather, to explain his intentions). I watched most of the film adaptations  but it was when I found one of the best recordings of it in German, with the legendary Lotte Lenya singing, and started singing it with all my German friends in Cambridge, that it became something very special to me. (I texted one of those friends at the interval of the show with a lyric, and he replied straightaway with the next part of it, such is the power of that connection between us). The reason why it resonated so much with me is that it perfectly described the confusion and materialism of broken post-Communist society, where not only every person but the whole country seemed to be up for sale.

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral – First comes the feeding, then the ethics.

Natürlich hab ich leider recht/ Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht./Wir wären gut – anstatt so roh/Doch die Verhältnisse, sie sind nicht so. – Of course, you see that I am right/Life’s a bitch and man is shite./We could be good instead of hell,/But circumstances don’t bode well. [my own translation, as I couldn’t find this new script online anywhere.]

In the end, Brecht’s cynicism was justified. Germany was engulfed by even darker shadows in the 1930s. By the mid 1990s, I’d lost all hope of leading a decent life in a country so hell-bent on its own destruction and that of its younger generation. I just hope that this time, for present-day London, he proves more entertaining than prophetic.

If you do want to see this inventive production for yourself, it will be broadcast live on the 22nd of September in many cinemas across the UK via the National Theatre Live programme.