The most demanding task for biographical drama is the convincing depiction of genius. You can make an actor look and sound like Einstein but it is harder for the audience to believe that the animated waxwork onstage came up with E=mc2.
This test was recently set in extreme form by the opening of two plays featuring supreme artistic figures: Mozart in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979) and Shakespeare in the Noël Coward Theatre’s West End adaptation of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, for which the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard was reshaped by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters).
An obstacle in putting such figures onstage is that viewers think they recognise the characters. Shaffer, in Amadeus, notoriously subverted this certainty by giving “Wolfie” a first entrance as a giggling, overgrown child indulging in coprophiliac pillow talk with his future wife.
Something that had never struck me until I saw the works in close succession is that Shakespeare in Love plays the same initial trick of presenting the icon as an apparent idiot. While “Will” is not a shit-wit at the level of “Wolfie”, he seems highly unlikely to end up having the Royal Shakespeare Company named after him.
More Bart than Bard, he is a feckless, penniless hack dramatist with writer’s block who has terrible ideas for plays – “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” – and whose best lines are nicked from Christopher Marlowe. But, as well as being a dramatic tactic, these bathetic scenes also express the historical and psychological truth that someone who ends up as “Mozart” or “Shakespeare” does not possess that identity throughout their life or at all times of day.
And, having established an unfamiliar Wolfie and Will, Shaffer and Stoppard et al play flatteringly with our knowledge of their real work. The standout moment in Amadeus has Salieri – the mediocre court composer whose rumoured poisoning of his brilliant young rival inspired the play – performing a plodding welcome march, which the wild child then competitively picks out from memory before shifting around some notes to turn the dour tune into the beloved “Non più andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro. Similarly, Shakespeare in Love introduces a dog called Spot so that the audience can enjoy a knowing chuckle when the mutt is shooed offstage with Lady Macbeth’s line, “Out, damned Spot!”
As well as reading the work into the life, both plays more conventionally do the reverse. Shaffer’s Mozart, after hearing of his father’s death, immortalises Papa in the ghost father in Don Giovanni. And Shakespeare in Love is, in effect, a prequel to two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, in which Will falls in love with a rich young woman called Viola, who first inspires the plot of Romeo and Juliet and then, when she is sent overseas, lends her name and sailing to the heroine of Twelfth Night.
At a further level of personal excavation, these dramas about the making of art may also offer glimpses of their makers. Will’s complaints about his profession – theatregoers’ tendency to cough and reviewers criticising repetition (“Not Verona again!”) – can be assumed to reflect Stoppard’s and Lee Hall’s experiences. And Peter Hall, who directed the premiere of Amadeus, suggests in his published Diaries that Shaffer saw himself as Salieri, recognising that, though successful, he lacked the immortal genius of a Pinter or a Beckett.
The role of Salieri was defined by Paul Scofield and, while Rupert Everett at Chichester unsurprisingly fails to equal Scofield’s astonishing vocal range, he commands the stage powerfully and gives a greater sense that the Italian might have been maddened and mad enough to kill Mozart.
Shaffer’s obsession with the relationship between God and man in Amadeus now sounds more operatic than theological and it is Shakespeare in Love, though taking itself less seriously, that seems to have more to say about creativity, although, in both cases, some will hunger for something by Wolfie or Will, rather than about them.
The white rose in bloom
Yorkshire is having an astonishing summer: the Tour de France, J K Rowling’s appearance at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime-Writing Festival in Harrogate and the £100,000 Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year awarded to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The current exhibitions show why the park was chosen. Thoughtful curating gives its underground gallery to the septuagenarian German-American Ursula von Rydingsvard, an artist who has been neglected in Europe. Her intricate wooden sculptures break up and then remake trees in images that, given a life stretching from Nazi Germany to New York, can be read as metaphors of destruction and recovery.
In contrast, Ai Weiwei is among the world’s most famous artists but exhibiting him in the park’s 18th-century chapel creates illuminating culture clashes: images of Buddhist temples decorating a structure built for Christians, an iron tree in the churchyard.
It’s further proof that England’s greatest county contains the nation’s finest gallery.