“I think that anybody coming in will go, ‘Oh wow: look at those people; look at that time in life; look at that relevancy to now. That man is being so horrible to that other person; why?’ In that way, yes: it reaches everybody.”
I had asked Richard Clifford, whose production of Amadeus opened at Folger Theatre earlier this week, about his revival of Peter Shaffer’s celebrated 1979 play, which imagines the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary, the composer Antonio Salieri.
“Somebody who comes in off the street, never heard of Mozart, will see a form of spectacle. (I’ve got an amazing set designed by Tony Cisek; amazing costumes by Mariah Hale; amazing soundscape by Sharath Patel; amazing lighting by Max Doolittle.) So you’ll come in and you’ll see that.
“You’ve also got a wonderful play. You’ve got, in part, a comedy — I call it a revenge comedy.
“But it also has the music. And even if it’s not your thing (people don’t dislike classical music, or dislike hip-hop; they sometimes go, ‘Well it’s just not my thing’), they will come, and they will hear it, and they will think, ‘Oh, my God: listen to that — the power of that music.
“So, in that sense, it’s for all ages. It’s amusing; it’s powerful; it’s got some wonderful lines; it’s got some lovely actors, too. (Which is, I say, by the by only because, you know, the play’s the thing; I, as an actor, know that I service the play; the lead of the play is always the play. We actors are not creators; we’re interpreters.)”
The reviews have been glowing. The headline over Peter Marks’ notice in The Washington Post read “Amadeus at the Folger Will Be Music to Your Ears,” while, on DC Theatre Scene, Alexander C. Kafka raved, “Amadeus Soars at Folger Theatre.”
Amadeus is a play Clifford knows well. “I was in a production. (I’m an actor as well as a director.) Five years ago, I did a production with Rupert Everett as Salieri at Chichester Festival Theatre in the south of England (which was started by Laurence Olivier and became the beginnings of the National Theatre).
“I had the privilege of knowing Peter Shaffer — Sir Peter Shaffer — and it was a joy for him to be able to see our production, but also it was wonderful for us to have him in rehearsals, from time to time, to talk about the play, talk about the history of the play, and discuss anything we wanted to ask him.” (Shaffer died in 2016.)
This made me wonder whether Clifford had pitched Amadeus to Folger, or vice versa. “The Folger actually approached me with it. We were talking about doing a production of some sort, and this came up in the mix of various possible projects: Mozart and Amadeus came into the frame. And it’s a period that I have worked with and on, as a director and as an actor, many times, and certainly a number of times at the Folger, and we decided on this.
“One always hopes for, in a play, some relevance. I call this a great play, because I think it is a modern classic. It’s not just defined by the time or the period, as, indeed, most of the Shakespeare plays are not defined by that.
“I think the world in which we are living has a desire for…if you look around the world, at the moment, there is revenge going on everywhere. I have called it a ‘revenge comedy,’ because it’s not just a list of ‘this happened and then that happened,’ but it’s also about the interior mind of someone who takes revenge — in this instance, on God; but also on Mozart and his ability to compose, which was unparalleled, really, certainly at the time.
“If we think of the people that we know now — musicians, composers — we think of Mozart, and we think of Beethoven, probably. If you took a quick poll, those would be the two people that everybody would know.
“I, having been in it myself, and listened to the words every night for months — what is interesting about Peter Shaffer’s play is you feel the rhythm of the play, and you feel the rhythm of the music. He has written it to correspond with, and accompany, the music. The music is such an important part of this play.
“We’re in the theater now, and we’ve got the proper sound system running. You can hear that the music and the play go together. They are connected.
“But I think it is about power, and the abuse of power. We see, during the play, in the character of Salieri, how he abuses his power to destroy a man who, in many ways, has not got the intellectual capacity to see that other people are against him.
“That is the play that Shaffer wrote. We don’t know what the history exactly is of these two characters, the two main characters in the play, but Mozart was somebody who composed music often — in fact, most of the time — out of his head and straight onto the paper without any corrections. Now, how many of us ever write a speech, or write an article, or write a letter, without a correction? Mozart was able to have all those instruments in his head — all those notes in his head — and be able to do it. So he was a genius; he was truly a genius. And it is about Salieri’s revenge upon this genius.”
The play’s centering on a revengeful central character who confides dark thoughts to the audience recalls Shakespeare. “Absolutely. There is one character who not only seeks revenge, but who is fired by ambition: to be the best. In terms of “The Scottish Play” and Richard III, they want power. Now, Salieri, in this same sense, wants power, and he will do anything to get it.
“We know that this is not the true story of these two people, as we know that it’s not the true story of Richard III; as we know it’s not the true story of the Scottish King; as we know it’s not the true story of Henry V. We know it is not the true story, but we know that it is a plausible version of the state of mind of these people. So that is the premise.
“I think there are modern parallels. I don’t think we need really to discuss what they are, but there are modern parallels we see all around us at the moment: the ambition; the over-reaching ambition. And the good thing about the play, I feel, is that it shows Salieri’s journey, which is fascinating: he ends up no better off than he was when he started his journey.
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“He’s always known, and still knows, and cannot get rid of the fact, that Mozart is a better composer. Can you imagine? You are so good — you’re not quite as good as the best. And I think that that is why it’s a modern story.
“I also know that Peter Shaffer continued to think about the play, continued to rewrite some of it, continued to recompose, in his own mind, certain parts of the play, for twenty years. So it wasn’t as if he wrote it and then said, ‘Well, there it is.’ He wrote it, and thought about it, and developed it even further, which is why I think it stands the test of time, and why I think it’s such a wonderful play: because it’s very well thought through.
“When Peter Shaffer first wrote it, there was a character in it who played a prominent role in the last third of the play, and now Shaffer has removed that, and made Salieri part of that story — Salieri talks about the truth of what that story was — and to make it more dramatic (rather than bringing in, like they do in Molière’s Tartuffe at the end of the play, a deus ex machina who comes on and sort of rounds the play up), Salieri takes that story on, but from his own point of view.
“[Shaffer] rewrote bits of it. The first production was directed by Peter Hall and, twenty years later, [Shaffer] did another production with Peter Hall — the first one was Scofield and the last one was David Suchet — and he rewrote it after Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen. (Ian played it in New York.) He took that character out then, and did little changes throughout that twenty years. And so, when David Suchet performed it, it was the version that really has carried on ever since.”
I mentioned that McKellen did Amadeus not only during its New York premiere in 1980, but also, pre-Broadway, in Washington, where I saw what I believe to have been the first preview in this country, at DC’s National Theatre.
“Oh, wow! Amazing! How wonderful. Sadly, I didn’t get to see that. I saw Paul Scofield, but I was working in England and I wasn’t in America. A few years afterwards, I came and did the same sort of thing with the RSC in Much Ado and Cyrano. We did New York first and then Washington, and Ian did Washington first and then New York. DC is a great place to come and do theatre.”
“We are, really are, very privileged, as actors. I can’t complain about a moment in my life.” – Richard Clifford
I asked why it feels as if Amadeus has aged better than Shaffer’s predecessor hit Equus, which, back in the day, seemed to have had a stronger initial impact.
“I think that’s partly because of the music; I think that’s partly because of the subject matter.
“I think Alan Strang in Equus is trying to discover, what is God? I think both plays have central characters who are on-stage practically all the time who have this — is it a battle with God? Is it to try to get an understanding of God? Is it trying to be appreciated by God, or whoever this supreme figure is?
“In Amadeus, Salieri talks to God, and talks at God, quite a bit. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a religious play, because it isn’t, but now people have sort of removed religion from their lives until it’s a sort of benign force. Since the time of Equus, since the late twentieth century, people have really removed themselves from this idea that you really do talk to God.
“I know there are a lot of people who do; so, really, I suppose I’m talking about the circle in which I live. But I think that (both with Strang in Equus and Salieri and Mozart) those very powerfully-motivated men have this battle, and Shaffer chooses the power of a supreme being to answer to and to be answered by.
I think the reason is that Mozart and his music are such a part of our lives. People will go, ‘Oh I know that.’ ‘Well, who wrote it?’ ‘I dunno.’ But they will know Mozart’s music. Getting on a train; in any of the airports: you hear music, and often it’s something by Mozart, because he was so brilliant; so mathematical in the way he wrote his music.”
Clifford’s passion for the musical portion of this play made me wonder if he has directed opera. “I have directed operetta. I directed, a number of years ago, Die Fledermaus, which I did, actually, in Montana. [At Intermountain Opera in Bozeman.] I loved it. I did three productions in Montana. I did The Pirates of Penzance, I did The Mikado, and I did Fledermaus.
“I was very lucky: I had the privilege of knowing John Mortimer, the playwright, who had Rumpole of the Bailey and all that, but who had done a version of Die Fledermaus, which I had seen at Covent Garden, and I had loved, and I wrote him and asked him, ‘Would you let me do it?’ And he said yes. And it was wonderful. So it was a privilege.
“So I have done it. I love music. I love going to the opera; I love going to the ballet; I love listening to music; I love going to concerts.”
I next asked whether Clifford had always both acted and directed. “I did a little bit of directing when I was at Drama School; we used to direct each other in projects. And then I didn’t direct until the day after my fortieth birthday, so I’ve only been directing for twenty-odd years now.
“It has been a joy to do, and I think [acting and directing] run in parallel. The joy for me in directing is, I know where I want to end up in the play. I know the beginning, and I know the end, and with good casting (and I feel that I have got that again — yet again; you have some wonderful actors in this country), it is a journey for us all. I know where I want to go: being effective with a group of actors (in this case, ten actors) and that’s how it works for me.
“But also, over the twenty years that I’ve been directing, it has made me learn about myself as an actor, which I think is rather a wonderful thing. Hurrah.”
Clifford has also done both activities at once. “I’ve also had the misfortune (I only say that because it was a very lonely experience) — the first ever thing I did here was John Milton’s Comus, which was a very wonderful project to be involved in. I was directing myself. I played Comus. I used to go back to the hotel room at night, and sit on the bed, and go through it in my head, and tell myself, ‘That didn’t work very well,’ or ‘That did work very well,’ or whatever; so that was a weird thing.
“But now I love doing it, and I love being at the Folger. It’s a great place to be. The people are wonderful. That theater is amazing. You know, so many people go into that building and want to see something in that theater. It’s wonderful for me — a Brit — to come here and be surrounded by people who love not only the works of Shakespeare, but that building; it’s a great building.”
Clifford still acts frequently on screens large and small. (Recent high-profile credits include the film Justice League and the mini-series The Crown.) However, what I wanted to talk with him about was his work on Kenneth Branagh’s films of Shakespeare plays.
We began, funnily enough, by talking about the one of those in which he didn’t act; one that was “a project very close to Ken’s heart. He had done Hamlet, the full-length version, on-stage, and he wanted to put it on-screen.”
Don’t I remember seeing video of Branagh rehearsing his stage Hamlet with director Derek Jacobi? “Well, actually, [Jacobi] didn’t direct the full-length one; he directed a cut. We were all in a company called The Renaissance Company, that Ken had started with a man called David Parfitt, who was a producer (also an actor — had been an actor — and has become a producer and won, in fact, an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love; he was part of that team, which is far in the future), but we had Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan, and Derek Jacobi directing Much Ado, As You Like It, and Hamlet, and Ken played Hamlet; I played Horatio. He went on to do it later at the Royal Shakespeare Company (the full-length version) and he wanted to do the movie.
“Ken and I go back a long time. We met on a television series called Fortunes of War — he, Emma Thompson, and I. And he and I, and Emma and I, have remained friends all this time. They are some of my — they are my dearest friends.”
Cheeky question number one: which is Clifford’s favorite of the Branagh Shakespeare films? “Oh, they each have their own particular, special memories, but I have a feeling that the one I love most of all is Much Ado About Nothing.
“And I love it because we were all like traveling players; we all lived in Italy for eight weeks. I think I was there for ten, but most people were there for eight; some of us stayed on to do some of those riding shots that we needed to get for the beginning of the movie, but we did them at the end of the movie. (I think it’s in case we fell off the horse and broke our legs.)
“But I think it’s because of the camaraderie doing it; the joy of doing it; the joy of working with Denzel Washington; the joy of working with Michael Keaton; the joy of working with one’s peers, like Dickie Briers [like Clifford, the late Richard Briers was in most of the Branagh films]; Emma Thompson; the career start of Kate Beckinsdale — her first movie; Keanu Reeves.
“We all loved it. We were all there together. We all got to know each other. We used to go to dinner together. We all went on jaunts together. I went to Rome with somebody else in it because we had a couple of days off. We had a great time. It was a joyous, joyous, joyous time.
“But I like all the others. I love Love’s Labour’s Lost because I love the music of it. I thought that Ken did the most fantastic job of taking out a lot of the expectations that the play has, and putting in the music that gave you the sense of what Shakespeare had written, because it’s a very complicated play, Love’s Labour’s, and I think Ken did a great cinematic version of it.
“But I love them all. I think, actually, he is the renaissance, in my view, of Shakespeare on film. Henry V — you know, a man who’d never directed a film before.
“We finished doing the three plays — Much Ado, As You Like It, and Hamlet — and, a week later, we were on the set of Henry V at the Studios in Shepperton.
“For Ken, it was a big adventure; for a number of us, it was a big adventure, because, when do you do Shakespeare on film? Only since then have we had Baz Luhrmann; have we had Ethan Hawke as Hamlet; all those things came after Ken did it. In a sense, he is the pioneer of modern Shakespeare on film. And I admire him hugely.”
Cheeky question number two: does Clifford prefer Branagh’s films of Henry V and Hamlet to Olivier’s? “Well, they were both done at different times and for different reasons. I think Ken Branagh’s version of Henry V is a modern take on the times; Olivier’s was a modern take on the times — filmed, produced, adapted for a particular reason, and that was a boost at a time in the Second World War; it was to boost the morale of the people. And they had all those battle scenes: it was full of people in the army, and full of local people. The joke is, it was to help win the war, because it is so jingoistic.
“Olivier’s Hamlet, of course, was cut. It’s in black-and-white. Ken’s is a huge project; a big vista on the play. And one can find niggles; one can find questionable things in both of them. But they both have —
“I remember seeing Olivier’s Hamlet and, when he’s saying, ‘To be or not to be,’ it being so chilling. I remember his look — who doesn’t remember his look? Sitting on a rock by the sea, you know: you just think, ‘God, this is so powerful.’
“And I have been fortunate enough, indeed, to do two Hamlets, be in two Hamlets, at Elsinore, in Kronborg Castle, in Denmark. It made me think of Olivier, who had also done Hamlet at Elsinore.
“One, with Derek Jacobi, we did inside in the courtyard, which had its own special feeling of being enclosed; and the other — Ken’s, that was directed, again, by Derek — on the ramparts outside, because we weren’t allowed — it was a fire hazard to do it inside the courtyard. But outside — how powerful it was.
“But, you know, we are lucky. It’s karma, in some way, that we’ve all done these things, and we’ve all done them together, and we’ve all done them a number of times.
“I think our lives — you know, I did a play here called The Game of Love and Chance. It’s chance, but it’s also love. We all love each other, and we all get to work together. We are, really are, very privileged, as actors. I can’t complain about a moment in my life.
“I’ve been very lucky.”