Lonely Planet describes the Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) as ‘somewhat Soviet-looking’. However, the interior is definitely bang up to date, thanks to a £22 million renovation project affecting every part of the inner space, from the snazzy trap door in the stage to the 100 extra seats and the distinctive ceiling art in the cafe.
I took a free tour of the new layout, as part of the first Live Night, a special event aimed at theatregoers aged 16-25, which took place shortly before the evening’s performance of Amadeus.
What is Live Night?
Selected CFT productions will host one of these dedicated events, when a group meets shortly before the show and sees how the play works within the space. Whilst there’s no charge for the tour, booking is essential, and it comes as a ‘bolt-on’ part of your specially priced £8.50 ticket (this is a hefty discount, with non-concessionary seats starting at £15).
Even if you can’t attend a Live Night, you can still bag yourself an £8.50 seat at an ordinary performance, where 10% of the tickets have been allocated to 16-25-year-olds – this is an initiative the CFT developed last year, building on the Arts Council England’s scheme called A Night Less Ordinary.
Taking a Live Night Tour
We began backstage with a peek at the trap door, leading up to a stage with more technical possibilities than ever before. Our guide, Rupert Rowbotham (the CFT’s Learning and Participation Director), explained how the new set-up lends itself to different productions. There’s the potential to deal with huge set design demands, such as depicting swimming pools or rivers if needed. As this play is set in 18th Century Vienna, no swimming pools were required.
Next we headed to the Green Room, lined with maple flooring from the original thrust stage (if, like me, you’re pretty ignorant on theatre terminology, click to find out more). Rupert described how the floor was donated by the Canadian city of Stratford, Ontario, whose own theatre was a huge inspiration to the team behind the building of the CFT.
To get to the heart of the action, we snuck past a series of intriguing props and in through the Voms, short for vomitorium, a pathway for the actors to burst onto the stage. Here we met Marc Antolin, the Dance Captain for Amadeus, who filled us in on the hidden dance elements of the production. “The scene changes are almost choreographed,” he told us. “With the audience on three sides, they can see the changes, so the stage management from Stephen Mear makes everything faster and neater – this is important because lots of the monologues in the play jump backwards and forwards in time.”
It’s not just trained dancers who had to work on this stuff – all the cast were involved. As Marc explained, “You have to remember that walking, standing and bowing was different back then, especially at court.” Look out for some excellent stylised sequences involving Mozart’s concerts, when you’ll see further dance elements.
Throughout the tour we discussed the themes of the play, with Rupert describing it as, “almost like a confession, or an exploration of guilt.” For him, “Mozart was the original rock star who died early. We see him disrespecting language in favour of music.”
Live Night was a perfect introduction to the performance, giving enough clues without spoiling crucial surprises for the audience. Future events to look out for include Pitcairn on 18th September, going behind the scenes of the new Richard Bean play.
For those of you who don’t fit the 16-25 age bracket, don’t panic – the CFT also offers general tours, with the bonus of exploring the Minerva Theatre too. And if I still haven’t converted you, check out their YouTube channel for a virtual tour featuring the cast and crew of Amadeus, followed by interviews with the architects who have worked on the building over the years.
Amadeus – Background
Here’s what you need to know before you see the play:
• It was written in 1979 by Peter Shaffer, who regularly rewrites his own work. This means his plays don’t just change due to directorial decisions – they constantly evolve.
• Our narrator is Italian composer Antonio Salieri, who becomes jealous when child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives at the Hapsburg Court, bringing wildly inventive and intelligent compositions with him, along with his scatological humour. Mozart’s mouth sits in the gutter whilst his mind effortlessly dreams up incredible sonatas and symphonies – a combination that shocks the court and leaves the narrator fuming. Salieri tells the story as an old man consumed by this very dark period of his life.
• Shaffer told the Guardian in 2013 he was inspired to write Amadeus after he noticed ‘the contrast between the sublimity of his [Mozart’s] music and the vulgar buffoonery of his letters’.
• Previous actors who have starred as Salieri include Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen, whilst Simon Callow and Tim Curry have both played Mozart (not much of a stretch for Callow if you’ve ever seen the film Chemical Wedding); Felicity Kendal and Jane Seymour have both taken on the role of Mozart’s put-upon wife, Constanze.
Whilst classical music isn’t normally my cup of tea, I think this quote from Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) sums up the way it can move people. McCullers describes 13-year-old tomboy Mick Kelly, who’s heard Mozart on the radio:
She could remember about six different tunes from the piece of his she had heard. A few of them were kind of quick and tinkling, and another was like that smell in the spring-time after a rain… She hummed one of the tunes, and after a while in the hot, empty house by herself she felt the tears come in her eyes. Her throat got tight and she couldn’t sing anymore. Quickly she wrote the fellow’s name… MOTSART. [P.37]
Amadeus – Play Review
Music may drive the plot of Amadeus, but you don’t need to be a Classic FM enthusiast to be gripped by Jonathan Church’s production of Peter Shaffer’s award winning play, filling the revamped Chichester Festival Theatre.
Rupert Everett’s well-observed Salieri is a bitter man with an irrepressible sweet tooth, constantly chasing a rainbow-bright sugar fix. Salieri’s comfortable life at court, seemingly engineered by God, is rocked by the arrival of Mozart: a slappable brat who, if alive today, would probably make guest appearances on programmes featuring Keith Lemon.
Joshua McGuire brilliantly captures Mozart’s hyperactivity as he zips around the stage braying with boundless enthusiasm. The boy genius offers ‘a thousand kisses’ to the baffled Emperor Joseph II on his arrival, before firing fart jokes like bullets into the polished façade of the court, and Everett’s Salieri only has to turn down the corners of his mouth or give a steely glint in his eye to show his utter contempt.
The strong supporting cast includes an impressive Jessie Buckley as Constanze and Simon Jones as the Emperor, all contained within a chandelier-topped Viennese set designed by Simon Higlett that makes full use of a newly flexible stage. In later scenes, the focus moves from chandeliers to lit candles placed precariously beside flowing costumes and pages of sheet music, all of it with the potential to turn into smoking ruins at a moment’s notice. The unrelenting tension leaves the audience with no question as to the power of ambition and jealousy.
Other Interactive Stage Experiences
If you’re looking for more ways to get into theatre, you can’t go wrong with these:
• Sign up for a Masterclass at TRH (Theatre Royal Haymarket) – I’ve attended a few of their excellent writing sessions; Amadeus‘ director Jonathan Church has held a previous Masterclass here.
• Take a guided backstage tour of the National Theatre, which can cost as little as £5 – I managed to get up close to the puppets of War Horse by doing this.
• Loads of other venues across the UK have similar tours, including the Bristol Old Vic, the Birmingham Rep and the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Have you ever taken a backstage tour, or would you be tempted to? Add your thoughts below.