Trinity college lawns
It’s not often that you get to see the entire performance at a press preview. It was a gutsy choice, but one that paid off for first-time director, Olivia Ouwehand, as I found myself afraid throughout that it would all be over at any moment.
Trinity College Lawn will host late eighteenth-century Europe as we see the standoff between two musical nemeses, Antonio Salieri (Thomas Olver) and Wolfgang “Wolfie” Amadeus Mozart (Hugh Macfarlane), two genius composers embroiled in a struggle for supremacy and favour in the Italian court.
Shaffer’s play places the events on a timeline, beginning with an introduction to the relative back stories of Salieri and Mozart and tracing their acquaintanceship until the latter’s mysterious death, with the action framed by its presentation by Salieri in an older, withered state.
Through the tired eyes of a man seeking to make his peace with the world by revealing the hateful fire that burnt under control within him for so long, we see how far a man will go to protect his own reputation. Salieri is driven to bring about Mozart’s downfall, compelled by the teasing, torturous torment through which he is put by the effortlessness with which Mozart excels and puts pen to paper without once removing it, forging a litany of musical masterpieces; God, in the meantime, gives him nothing. At times, this hateful fire burns brightly in Olver’s eyes, and there is no doubt that he is Salieri. His Italian accent is sedate, but pleasing and his actual Italian very impressive.
This dramatic offering from the Trinity Players bears their recent hallmark powerful performance by a strong male cast. The male leads are simply fantastic. These are two names that you should be seeing on many more programmes around Oxford, such is their talent. Olver, although initially ever-so-slightly too sprightly for a man at death’s door, steps comfortably, almost with relief, back into his old age at the end of the performance, having captivated us from start to finish.
Macfarlane is horribly charismatic at first. His French, German and Italian are flawless and left the linguist in me beaming, his voice velveteen and assured. Yet simultaneously I wanted to slowly asphyxiate him. Despite his endearing puppy-dog eyes and innocent rhapsodies, one can understand how he gets under Salieri’s skin. His meandering from adorable to abhorrent is seamless and professional, as he slowly gets drunk on his own sense of self-satisfaction and –worth, becoming xenophobic, arrogant and embarrassing. Macfarlane comes to believe that the world is his, which it sort of is, but this is what holds him back and prevents him acquiring as many students as the diligent Salieri. His awkward scene of quasi-self-deprecation with his wife, Constanze, played by the fair Maude Morrison, in which he begs her to spank him for his naughtiness, with platitudinous mumsy-wumsy speak, marks his point of no return. Macfarlane’s fluidity of movement about the stage is particularly pleasing and contrasts nicely with the more reigned-in presence of Olver.
As Constanze Weber, Morrison is loyal and servile, charming and vulnerable, which works well in her scenes with Macfarlane, but her scenes with Olver leave us wanting a little more passion or tenacity, as some of her more emotional responses are lacking in credibility. Perhaps a more forceful rejection of Salieri is simply what we want to see.
Veterans Anna Maguire and Fay Lomas are wonderful as the Venticelli (“little winds”), who act as an external representation of Salieri’s paranoid thought processes and manage, in their varying tone, to verbalise several different gossipmongers’ trains of thought at once. They speak in eerily perfect synchrony and watch events from the side with a twisted fascination.
There will, of course, be music in the actual performances, but the plot here is so gripping and becomes so personal that music is almost forgotten – I’m only reminded of it when there are a few second of frantic arm waving that resemble a runway marshal bringing in an aircraft. The set is sparse, but effective, the chair in which Salieri sits vying nicely with the piano for our attention.
On a side note, although aesthetics are, of course, terribly important, it was not just a pleasure to watch these actors, but simply to gaze upon them. We have here a disarmingly attractive cast. Your early summer night’s dream will be complete with a glass of something fruity, a slice of cake and a ticket to see this show.
PHOTO/Zhi Hui Ho