BWW Interview: Richard Clifford Explores Timeless Values in a Modern Classic with the Folger's AMADEUS
A season of jealousy, manipulation, and advancement of personal and political agendas has descended on Capitol Hill. And that's not even taking into account the impeachment proceedings or intensifying presidential campaign. The real drama this holiday season is not in the House or Senate, but two blocks away at the Folger Theatre where Director Richard Clifford is ensuring that its latest production, Amadeus, plays with pitch-perfect perfection.
Written by Peter Shaffer, Amadeus wrestles with a question many have asked - why does talent come so easily to some and not to others. In Amadeus, that question is explored with the relationship of Antonio Salieri and his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
"It [Amadeus] has great relevance to what is going on today," says Clifford in a phone interview. "Peter [Shaffer] wrote a revenge comedy, with very funny lines. But ultimately it is a play about manipulation, bribery, and corruption. In the play, there is the court, where people are willing to go along and be manipulated by Salieri because they want to advance their own agendas. You cannot look at what is happening in the U.S., the UK with Brexit, and what Russia has been doing, and not see the parallels."
In many ways Amadeus is a natural fit for the Folger. While not written by Shakespeare, and set almost a century and a half after his death, it contains many of the classic themes the Bard's plays explored.
"When I was discussing with Janet Griffin, the Folger's producing director, a variety of plays we might like to do, Amadeus came to mind," says Clifford. "Even though it is set in the late 18th century, it isn't Shakespeare. And yet, it is a modern classic play because it is far reaching, has a large emotional range and the themes are quite timeless."
Clifford adds, "It is an amazing play about how we justify our lives. Do we put the emphasis on the right things, how do we try to justify our actions, our own failings. That is very clear in this play, because at the end it is up to the audience to judge Salieri by asking those very questions."
For Clifford, Amadeus is more than just a modern classic; it is also a story of friendship. His relationship with the play goes beyond the Folger and directing this production, but back to England and Shaffer himself.
"Five years ago I was in a production of Amadeus at the Chichester Theatre, which was founded by Sir Laurence Olivier. It was a great honor because it was the last production of the play Peter Shaffer saw. And throughout the rehearsal process, he was there and involved. So to be a part of that, and now directing a production at the Folger is really special," says Clifford.
Amadeus opened on Broadway in 1981 and was a mammoth hit. It not only won the Tony Award for Best Play, running for 1,181 performances, but a 1984 movie adaptation also won eight Oscars including Best Picture. The play presents an interesting staging challenge because it is told as a flashback. While easy to do in a movie, for the theatre, going backwards in time can be tricky.
"Having worked at the Folger, I love the theatre and working there because it is so intimate," says Clifford. "In thinking about the show, I tried to see it as if everything is happening in Salieri's head and we are brought in there to observe."
"As a director, I serve the playwright. Of course, in all our minds as a director you see the beginning, you know where you want to end, and the middle is a journey and collaboration. That is what I love about rehearsals, it is an adventure, and it is a journey," adds Clifford.
Shaffer took artistic license writing Amadeus. Even though the two main characters were real people, it is extremely questionable as to what extent the events onstage occurred. Nevertheless, the play was not meant to be a historical reenactment, but rather an existential question.
"It is an amazing play about how we justify our lives. Do we put the emphasis on the right things, how do we try to justify our actions, our own failings. That is very clear in this play, because at the end it is up to the audience to judge Salieri by asking those very questions," says Clifford.
One question though remains for Clifford. What does he hope Shaffer would think of the Folger's production?
"Oh, I hope he's [Peter Shaffer] pleased. I hope he feels like we honored his piece and I would thank him for writing a modern classic," says Clifford.