Director Michael Longhurst stages an exuberant and poignant revival of playwright Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, who died in June last year. Originally staged in 1976 and brought to acclaim by the likes of Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen, Longhurst has big shoes to fill.
Ingeniously taking on Mozart’s subversive sense of liberation, the orchestra are not confined to their usual out-of-sight sunken pit; instead the Southbank Sinfonia fuses with the on-stage action, becoming an essential limb to this powerful morphing body of musical theatre. They are caught up in Salieri’s vengeful rivalry with Mozart, consistently bursting into effervescent vibrations at the wave of Mozart’s hand, and only occasionally acquiescing with Salieri’s more stale symphonies.
The play initially sits on the precipice of comedy, before tumbling into tragedy in the second half. Although the genre progression ensures the play’s diversity and depth, this three hour spectacle is wrapped up a little too painstakingly as we despairingly watch the lives of the Mozart and Salieri tumultuously unravel. Longhurst ensures his production is righteously committed to history, and the drawn-out conclusion only very slightly tinges the momentous energy that precedes it. Lucian Msamati seamlessly balanced this intricate blend of tragicomedy with steadfast soberness, keeping his flares of anger, anxiety and cold-heartedness for his soliloquies with God. These moments bleed into the absurd with his flamboyant Italian pronouncements, sometimes comically throwing questions at an audience rapt in his spell. On achieving fleeting fame, his journey parallels a Miltonic Satan, commanding a slithering pulsating sea of devotees, before falling destitute to wither alone. Mozart’s operas are only considered to be sublimely superior in the wake of his death.
The rich air of the eighteenth century Viennese court is perfectly characterised when the entirety of the cast litters a grandiosely decorated stage, in their depraved New Year celebration. Adam Gillen plays Mozart with a superbly subversive infantile cheek; he is a glorious misfit bouncing off a rigidly tasteless (albeit highly amusing) army of courtly superiors, his otherness worn through his quirky Dr. Martens. Comedy punctuates the scenes as Mozart’s boisterous innuendos and gleeful shrieks of “flumpywumpy” draw countless bellows of laughter from a titillated audience. No note is superfluous and no sheen on the luxuriously patterned costumes (designed by the fantastic Chloe Lamford) is too excessive.
Salieri’s single-minded ambition to secure a legacy – of either fame or infamy – plays with the notion of theatre; he drives the narrative, yet the play is called Amadeus. Immortalising both protagonists, this play exposes the wickedness of a man who pits himself against God and Mozart. This is a testament to the triumphant indestructible legacy of great art, which ultimately deems villainous destruction powerless to persistent creation.
Amadeus is playing at The National Theatre until 24 April 2018
Photo: Marc Brenner