Amadeus – National Theatre at Home

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: Peter Shaffer

Director: Michael Longhurst

A smash hit on its debut in 1979, Amadeus merges fact with fiction to create a brilliantly entertaining story of a musical rivalry, spiralling out of control. Sadly, this appears to be the final online show from the National Theatre this summer.

We begin on a dark stage. Musicians assemble, tuning their instruments. A name begins to percolate: Salieri. Gossip rises like steam. As if summoned, an elderly Salieri is wheeled on. Lucian Msamati stakes his claim on the audience. It’s essential that he feels we are on his side – this is a game of perspective after all. Salieri confides in us: rumours suggest he has killed Mozart. Begging our indulgence, he will explain everything.

Getting out of the wheelchair, Salieri emerges as a young man. It is 1781, and Salieri is a lynchpin of Vienna’s cultural life. Proud and pompous, Msamati is magnificent as the musician. Success has come early to Salieri, and he has little intention of letting it go. Working at the court of Joseph II (a brilliantly laconic Tom Edden), Salieri hears that former child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is travelling to the city. There is new music to be heard.

Our introduction to Mozart is less than flattering. Invited to court, Mozart slips away and begins to chase his girlfriend, Constanze, around the palace. As Mozart, Adam Gillen is boisterous, childlike and, at times, unpalatable. His fondness for scatological humour is launched at us with little warning. Salieri is appalled, labelling the musician “an obscene child”. Gillen’s no-filter Mozart is wild, unkempt and right on the edge.

He also refuses to play the game. Instead of placating Joseph II’s court, he starts with the new stuff. The only person who appreciates it, of course, is Salieri. Msamati stands, dumbfounded, as the orchestra begins to play. He understands, immediately, the value of Mozart’s work.

Trying to settle in Vienna, Mozart’s now-wife Constanze (Karla Crowe) asks Salieri for advice. She brings a collection of Mozart’s latest manuscripts. They are without alteration or correction. Salieri mistakenly believes the sheets to be work in progress, and rages at how he toils in comparison. His work feels lifeless: Mozart is not playing the game, he is rewriting the rules.

Msamati builds Salieri’s anger in such a way that we almost go with him. Who would not be frustrated? With the influence to make or break Mozart, Salieri turns his back on virtue. He pulls apart every opportunity for Mozart to make money and build contacts. Desperate for the court’s attention, Mozart creates a new opera. It is The Marriage of Figaro, and he writes it in just 6 weeks.

Incorporating opera and dance, Amadeus’ set pieces, designed by Chloe Lamford and choreographed by Imogen Knight, echo how Mozart was, and is, performed. With the Southbank Sinfonia playing live, we are reminded that while we are seeing versions of Mozart – never quite the real thing – the man is revealed in his music.

Forty years on, and the mythology of Amadeus endures. We understand that Salieri and Mozart are not the men presented to us on stage, but we also know the value of a good story. The production celebrates these conflicting ideas, with a play that bursts with life and colour. Amadeus disavows us of the notion of genius being something elevated and golden. We are given something far better: music created from turmoil and suffering and vanity. Amadeus continues to thrive not on its fiction, but because it illustrates a simpler truth: talent is earned, not given.

Available here online until  23 July 2020

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