Amadeus – National Theatre, London

Writer: Peter Shaffer

Director: Michael Longhurst

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

At almost 40 years old Peter Shaffer’s seminal play Amadeus has survived longer than Mozart lived. Frequently revived and admired since its 1979 debut, this tale of professional jealousy was last performed in the 2016-2017 winter season and returns to the National Theatre for another four-month run where it once again makes the case for the beauty, importance and innovative influence of Mozart’s music.

Antonio Salieri, once court composer to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna embarks on the final night of his life. He is a soul in torment, struggling to reconcile the fame and reverence he has enjoyed with the talented young life he once destroyed. Revisiting the ghosts of the past one last time, Salieri recounts the arrival of Mozart, the child prodigy grown to manhood in all but character, and the stir his talent caused. As Mozart’s musical star rises, Salieri’s wanes leaving the elder with no choice but to destroy his rival in attempt to provoke a punishment from God.

The thrill of Schaffer’s play and in Michael Longhurst’s production lies in the irreverent approach to a story that becomes increasingly powerful. The modern and the classic are seamlessly merged as the black-clad orchestra in twenty-first-century clothes swirl around the foppish coats and wigs of eighteenth-century Vienna, while Chloe Lamford’s striking design unites toy-theatre stylings to represent the exuberance of opera with wobbly scenery and draped curtains, alongside minimal furniture, often just a piano or single chair to represent a room that leave lots of bleak dark space for Salieri’s jealousy and, later regret, to grow.

The show’s biggest triumph is the creation of opera excerpts in which a large semi-circle at the centre of the stage is lowered to create an orchestra pit while scenes are played in the ring around the edge that adds a touch of vaudeville – it’s used sparingly but is a brilliant technical solution in a production that helps the audience to visualise Mozart’s music as Salieri discovers each new piece for the first time. Longhurst’s continuously plays with ideas of grandeur and poverty, and while the characters rattle between the two as they come in and out of royal favour, Amadeus is at once a celebratory and bleak vision of the consequences of such fame.

At the heart of the show is Lucian Msamati’s complex and relevant portrayal of Salieri, a man who openly wished for fame (rather than just talent) as a child and takes a dark path to ensure his legend. The idea of fame being an end in itself, is one modern audiences will recognise, and Msamati delivers a performance filled with contrasting emotion as his once irreproachable Salieri is driven mad by jealousy and slowly descends into a hell of sorts, seeing himself at last as he truly is. Throughout, Msamati makes it clear that love and hate are closely tied, and within Salieri’s obsession with Mozart lays a huge admiration for the music that both uplifts him and drives his need to destroy it.

The depiction of Mozart in Amadeus will be quite surprising for those who associate the sensitivity of his orchestration with a quiet genius figure. By contrast, Adam Gillen’s zany brat is an unexpected and initially disconcerting creation; he’s petulant, arrogant, refuses any criticism and is bizarrely self-assured without being entirely aware of his impact on others. Given a punk-meets-New-Romantic look by Lamford, Gillen’s Mozart is exactly the ball of chaos his compositions represented, defying musical and social convention. But Gillen prevents him from becoming too one-note by introducing touches of sadness, desperation and even fear as the story unfolds, the idea of a man raised to believe in his own genius suddenly seeing it inexplicably fall away. And where his presence may initially have been quite irksome, you feel audience sympathies swing towards him as Salieri’s plan unfolds.

There is a feisty supporting role for Adelle Leonce as Mozart’s wife Constanze who faces her own #MeToo moment, and while an underwritten part, makes her mark as a calm and rational focus in a crazed society. The Southbank Sinfonia led by Ruth Elder are essential to central themes about how art rather than personalities survive, and their renditions of both Salieri and Mozart’s pieces are beautifully performed, which, directly following the success of Follies, reminds us that the Olivier is actually a great concert space.

Amadeus does take a little while to get going and until the arrival of Mozart the pace is a little slow, while some of Salieri’s long monologues that punctuate the play are a touch repetitive which only occasionally create a lull in what is otherwise an exciting three hours of theatre. It may be nearly 40, but Shaffer’s play is a modern classic and, with its love for Mozart’s music, has plenty of life left in it.

Runs until: 24 April 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner

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