Before the curtain rose for Michael Longhurst’s main stage debut at the National Theatre, Rufus Norris and Nicholas Hytner paid tribute to the late Howard Davies, one of the great theatre directors of his generation, who will be sorely missed. Davies’ long association with the National Theatre spanned 28 years and 36 productions, beginning with Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF in 1988 and sadly coming to its conclusion with THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS by Sean O’Casey, which he co-directed with Jeremy Herrin. Moving on to Longhurst’s production strangely felt like experiencing a generation change at the National Theatre.
Peter Shaffer kept rewriting his most popular play after it was first staged at the National Theatre in 1979, with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow in the leading roles. He wished his work to stay fluid and alive. Michael Longhurst, who was responsible for the ground-breaking production Constellations, brings a new approach to AMADEUS by making the orchestra an integral part of the performance. The Southbank Sinfonia, consisting of 20 musicians, does not only serve as an orchestra but also as a musical chorus, reacting to and commenting on Salieri’s monologues and actions. When Salieri refers to his latest work, an opera buffa called The Stolen Bucket, the orchestra refuses to play an excerpt from a work the musicians obviously consider beneath them. Dressed in black, the orchestra is not set in any specific time period, reflecting the timelessness of Mozart`s compositions. Yet the singers reflect the pomp and glamour of their time as they provide excerpts of some of Mozart’s most beloved works.
The play is a fictionalised version of the competitive relationship between Salieri and Mozart. It begins as Salieri is nearing the end of his life. He feels the urgent need to confess a horrific crime – the assassination of Mozart. Shaffer then takes us back to Vienna in 1781 when Salieri and Mozart first met. Although this was the age of enlightenment, musicians are still “learned servants” to the rulers. The court of Emperor Josef II is dominated by Italians – Antonio Salieri, Kapellmeister Bonno and Count Orsini-Rosenberg – Mozart being a German-Austrian is considered an outsider. Salieri has heard of Mozart and adores his compositions but when he meets the man he is shocked. Salieri, a devout Catholic, cannot understand why God would grant this precious gift to an infantile, vulgar man with the “voice of an obscene child” whilst he himself is trapped in mediocrity. Salieri’s rivalry with Mozart turns into a personal fight with his creator, whom he renounces. He does everything in his power to destroy Mozart to avenge himself on an unjust God.
Lucian Msamati, following his success in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, gives an outstanding performance as Antonio Salieri, who fights a personal war with God by destroying his wunderkind, an arrogant, undeserving brat who was gifted with the musical genius that Salieri should have been granted instead of being stuck in eternal mediocrity. It is ironic that the only person who appreciates Mozart’s genius is also his worst enemy. Msamati plays the Machiavellian villain with subtle, sophisticated wit, making a clear cut between his public and his private self and crying out his anger and frustration only in the privacy of his thoughts which he shares with his audience.
However, I am not quite convinced by Adam Gillen’s portrayal of Mozart. Dressed in pink Doc Martens and gaudy costumes, the spikey haired Mozart looks like a mix of Johnny Rotten and Rik of “The Young Ones”. He is a foul-mouthed and conceited philanderer, who chases his fiancée Constanze around the salon, crawling on all fours when Salieri first encounters him. Gillen’s performance is so over the top at times that one wonders if his character has lost his sanity. It is only in the second half that Mozart evokes any empathy as he becomes more vulnerable and less cocky in the face of failure and destitution, clinging on to Salieri as his friend.
Mozart’s wife Constanze is skilfully played by Karla Crome as a cheeky and shrewd woman, who is loyal to her “Wolferl” to a fault. Geoffrey Beevers is very good as Mozart’s benefactor Count von Strack, Hugh Sachs convinces as the haughty Count Orsini-Rosenberg who keeps the Viennese court firmly in the hands of Italian musicians, with a little help from his countryman Salieri, resisting anything that might resemble innovation or creativity.
Michael Longhurst’s production expertly fuses Peter Shaffer’s intriguing play with Mozart’s music and a rich imagery – creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art).
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Marc Brenner
Amadeus is playing at the National Theatre until 2 February 2017, more performances to be announced soon.