This revival of Peter Schaffer’s iconic Amadeus is breath-taking. What a moving, passionate production this is of a play about the greatest composer of them all, the fine line between genius and madness, and the poison of ambition.
Lucian Msamati takes up the gauntlet of following in the footsteps of the greats by taking on the role of Salieri, Court Composer to Emperor Joseph II (Tom Edden) in 18th century Vienna, in this highly fictionalised account of his supposed feud with the greatest of them all – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen).
We all know the story so I won’t rehash its brilliance here but the NT and director Michael Longhurst have brought Vienna and music to life with its incorporation of the Southbank Sinfonia orchestra into the show. It must have cost a fortune but my, what a transformative effect. It’s lavish, yes, but by including them, Michael Longhurst transforms Mozart’s breath into music.
The orchestra are alive when Mozart is on stage; they respond to his every flick of wrist and wave of his hand. They demonstrate his brilliance perfectly, leaving nothing between the man and his music. The two are one and the same. His very thought is a symphony – and this is wittily juxtaposed by the orchestra’s palpable lack of interest in being at Salieri’s beck and call.
Lucian Msamati’s Salieri is everything you would want him to be. Straight-laced and ambitious, insecure and average. Msamati captures perfectly his petulance and jealousy without it ever being one-note. This is a man who knows what he is doing, who is aware of his inadequacy, but utterly unable to come to terms with it in peace.
But that’s not to say that this show is flawless.
Frustratingly, Adam Gillen’s interpretation of Mozart threatens to be a hole in the side of this production significant enough to almost sink the ship. Too often his Mozart is shrill and overacted, screechy and unbearable.
This is not Mozart. I get that there is a need to have the child prodigy as a complete counterpoint to Salieri’s affected refinement but it needs to be dialled down. This is Mozart as a juvenile Mad Hatter – petulant, cackling, constantly squealing in an unbelievably high-pitched tone. It’s too much. It hurts the ears and it’s jarring.
There’s a convention in reviews that avoids criticising actors for fear it may demoralise them when they must continue to perform. But to overlook or side-step this, for me, would be misleading. It causes such an imbalance, making it hard to engage in some of the early scenes. Mozart is often portrayed as a bit of a prick – that’s not uncommon – but this is over-the-top and pantomime-esque.
However, despite this, such is the brilliance in Peter Shaffer’s writing that it is impossible not to be affected as the play nears its climax. The relentlessness of Salieri’s poisonous cruelty is gut-wrenching, his determination to destroy Mozart, and his utter lack of compassion as the genius is consumed by the web of desperate poverty and isolation that Salieri has spun hurts to watch. And Adam Gillen finally finds his feet as he becomes a tormented, wretched figure.
The Mozart gripe aside, I was genuinely blown away by this production. It’s exhilarating and moving; the production’s incorporation of music is sublime, and it is as spiritual as it is a gruelling reveal on Man’s pettiness.
This play is rich with layers and themes: the corrosiveness of unfettered ambition, human cruelty, jealousy, and the divine beauty of a musical genius. But as much as this is Salieri against Mozart, this is also about Man versus God.
For Salieri cut a deal with God – utter subservience and devotion in exchange for favour in music. But though Salieri was Court composer, God instead blessed genius on an intolerable manchild. And it is God’s sick revenge on Salieri that only Salieri can appreciate the brilliance, the innovation, the astounding genius in Mozart’s compositions.
The lesson here? Don’t ever cut a deal with God. Don’t ever think you are on that level. For God will have the final word – always. And as Salieri stands there at the end, alone and bitter at God’s betrayal of him, you are overwhelmed at the sense of eternal justice in the fact that there is only one name that echoes down through eternity and it is not Salieri; it is Mozart, Mozart, Mozart.
Which is just as it should be.
National Theatre, London to (currently) February 2, 2017. However, more dates are expected to be announced.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Marc Brenner.