Sixteen weeks ago the National Theatre At Home season was launched and this week the final show began its one week run; they may just have saved the best until last. Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was first performed at the National Theatre in 1979 and was almost instantly hailed as one the foremost plays of the 20th century. Over 40 years later it still has the power to astound in this revival from 2016. Michael Longhurst’s scintillating production makes for a glorious reprise which consistently thrills.
The rivalry between court composer Salieri and the upstart crow Mozart forms the bedrock of the drama; the former conceives an innate hatred of the latter and engineers his fall from grace and eventually his death – or does he? For this is, among other things, a memory play and we all know just how notorious that faculty can be. By making these claims is Salieri aggrandising his own part in history as he struggles with being the mediocrity that he privately acknowledges himself to be? In any case there is an even bigger feud going on, that between Salieri and God (or with himself if you prefer). This is even more personally catastrophic as the composer struggles to make sense of his life and how and why talent is conferred on some yet not on others.
Any production of this play stands or falls by the casting of the two central roles and, in both cases, the actors are on top form. Lucian Msamati is a highly charismatic central figure and as an actor follows in the footsteps of Scofield, McKellen and Suchet; he rises to the challenge magnificently absolutely making the part his own. He addresses the audience with a clarity of thought and diction that keep us hanging on his every word and attacks the set piece speeches with a clear sense of purpose and a precision of diction which can be quite rare nowadays. Physically he is thoroughly convincing as both the old man in his wheelchair and his younger past self. To think, but a couple of weeks ago I was bemoaning the fact that we don’t see enough of this fine actor and now I’ve seen him twice in the last four days completely conquering Iago and now topping even that with his Salieri.
Adam Gillen takes the role of Mozart, a shambolic man child with a potty mouth and a tendency to throw tantrums when he can’t have his own way. Nevertheless, he is the musical genius who has survived the march of time and, especially towards the end, Gillen makes him a sympathetic figure who dies tragically young and who could perhaps have gone on to even greater things. Some critics at the time of the production pronounced Gillen’s characterisation to be too infantile and accused him of over egging the pudding but I would humbly suggest that they are missing the point. As well as being the central figure of the play, Salieri is also the (unreliable) narrator of proceedings. And so, we see Mozart entirely mediated through Salieri’s point of view. Just as he is in awe of Mozart’s music, Salieri is appalled by the young man’s behaviour and demeanour and possibly exaggerates this in order to partly justify his actions to himself. So, it is entirely right and proper, in my view, that Gillen plays Mozart to excess.
A particular mention also for Karla Crome as Mrs Mozart – Constanze. Starting out as scatological as her onstage husband, Crome invests her performance with an increasing sense of gravity as she discovers that someone needs to be the adult in the relationship. The scene in which she visits Salieri and he suggests “recompense” for advancing her husband’s career has real resonance in these post Weinstein times – thus it ever was! The rest of the cast is universally excellent and of the less “senior roles” I particularly enjoyed Tom Edden’s Emperor and Geoffrey Beever’s turn as the misanthropic Baron Van Swieten.
The real coup of the production is the use made of the twenty strong Southbank Sinfonia playing all the music live. Nor do they sit quietly in an orchestra pit or, as is more customary, find themselves relegated to a corner of the stage. They are front and centre throughout, often playing while on the move and interacting with the cast – indeed they are part of the cast functioning as an orchestral Greek chorus and adding a real edge to the proceedings. The whole is topped off with half a dozen actor/opera singers who perform snippets of Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, et al. I’m no opera buff but Fleur de Bray as Salieri’s and then Mozart’s pupil/mistress Katherina Cavalieri seemed to me to be on particularly strong form.
Magnificent use is made of the Olivier stage and for once there are enough performers to fill it. Heaven alone knows what the wages bill for this production must have been! However, it was worth it artistically even if not financially as it lends proceedings a real sense of spectacle. Lighting is suitably atmospheric and used to shrink the vast expanse of the stage when more intimate scenes are taking place. Costumes range from period (the actors) to modern (the musicians); particularly striking are Salieri’s golden outfit and Mozart’s pink Doctor Marten boots cleverly suggesting at the same time both the delicate and thuggish aspects of the character.
Shaffer’s play is rightly acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of 20th century theatre. I was lucky enough to see the original production with Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendall and Longhurst’s production certainly gives that a run for its money; indeed, the thrilling use of the live musicians probably gives it the edge. Salieri may repeatedly state his perception of his own mediocrity and as a narrator be questionably unreliable; I am very happy to say that this production is definitely neither.