Writer: Peter Shaffer
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of taking residence at its Southbank home, the National Theatre is dipping into the treasure chest that holds its greatest hits to bring out this witty gem, give it a good polish and return it to the Olivier stage where it opened in 1979. The result is that Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s fantasia on themes of hatred, jealousy and Divine Providence, garlanded with Oliviers, Tonys and (for the cinema adaptation) Oscars, can be seen to have lost little of its powers to tease the intellect and intrigue,
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died a pauper in 1791, having composed close to 100 symphonies, concertos and operas but still working on his Requiem Mass for himself. He was 35. Antonio Salieri, Viennese Court Composer is seen in the play as Mozart’s adversary, acutely aware that the earthly rewards accruing from his own mediocrity are no match for the prize awaiting his rival – immortality. Just as today we might look at, let’s say, a Lottery winner and ask “why him?”, Salieri looks at Mozart and questions why God chose to bestow the gifts of genius on this unworthy recipient and he declares war not only on him but on God Himself. So, Shaffer asks, did God reclaim his prodigy or did Salieri send him on his way?
Shaffer’s play is part thoughtful meditation on the unfairness of fate and the darker side of human nature and part high-brow pantomime. Director Michael Longhurst presents it on a grand scale, opening out the vast expanse of the Olivier Stage, filling it with singers, musicians, courtiers and milling crowds and then encouraging Lucian Msamati, prowling around as Salieri, to command every square inch of it. Chloe Lamford;s costumes and ever-changing set designs add to the rich look of the production.
By integrating Southbmk Sinfonia into his production, Longhurst risks allowing the music to overpower the drama, but the move pays rich dividends, When Salieri reads a new work by Mozart, anguished and disbelieving, we can hear the music for ourselves and the collision of opposing forces is thrilling. Under Music Director Simon Slater, who also contributes scene-linking compositions, the musical sequences prove to be superb additions to the play.
Msamati’s Salieri is demonic, a man who could take his place alongside Iago in the rankings of theatre villains, only a couple of child murders behind Richard III. He confides in and colludes with the audience as he plots, shares his feelings of shame and inadequacy and rants at the Almighty. However, his mitigating plea could be that Adam Gillen’s Mozart is so unspeakably vile that any rational person would feel an obligation to extinguish him. Vulgar, coarse, ill-mannered and with a voice that sounds like a creaking door, this Mozart is the antithesis of the music that comes from inside him.
Karla Crome is affectingly normal as Constanze, the common girl that Mozart marries against his father’s wishes and Fleur de Bray, who also sings soprano, catches the eye and the ear as the mistress of both rival composers. Tom Edden’s pompous, dim-witted Emperor Joseph II proves ill-suited to the role of patron of the arts, reacting to a long silence in a performance of The Marriage of Figaro by asking “is it modern?” As so often in battles between the establishment and the outsider, the establishment, in the form of Salieri’s ordinary work,wins, but only for now.
Running at around three hours (including interval), the play has its longueurs, but, if Shaffer’s style sometimes resembles a Philosophy for Beginners tutorial, he wraps it all in packaging so intensely theatrical that we forgive him. In truth the play may not be so profound as it pretends to be, but this revival of it is still profoundly entertaining.
Booking until 1 February 2017 | Image: Marc Brenner