There was a point in my life, a couple of years ago, where I thought I’d never witness this mighty Peter Schaffer play on the stage. I feared Paul Scofield’s performance cast too long a shadow, that maybe the film had drained away any desire to revisit the work.
Then this sensational production from director Michael Longhurst burst on to the Olivier stage last year, wowing audiences and critics alike. I was personally thankful, and the wider result was an immediate sell-out. So, thank the Lord of all things theatrical that this iconic play on God, glory, and the corruption of ambition is back once again to enthral and delight.
There is so much to admire in this revival that it’s hard to know where to start first. Let’s go with Lucian Msamati. I maintain that he was cruelly robbed of at least acknowledgement and nomination in the various end-of-year award shows. The role of Salieri is a demanding one, a part that routinely sees the villain of the piece conspiring with the audience as much as he charms and seduces in the Austrian Royal Court.
Salieri’s position as the preeminent Court Composer is unchallenged – until, that is, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen) arrives in Vienna. The prodigy with a reputation that preceded him, Lucian’s Salieri is both excited to hear from the much-feted composer, as he is concerned that Mozart could replace him. And so begins the mutual respect and vicious rivalry that defines this play.
Schaffer’s writing would be enough to hold the attention, but this revival is given its energy and passion through the inclusion of London’s Southbank Sinfonia orchestra. They bring each marvellous composition to life and re-enact excerpts from Mozart’s most famous operas. We get to hear what Salieri hears, we get to bear witness to the miracle of Mozart’s genius. We too get to appreciate this art from the gods.
It’s a sublime addition and Michael Longhurst weaves the two together so well that it’s impossible to know where the actors stop and the orchestra begins. But there’s some lovely touches too. You can’t help but smile when the same musicians, only too thrilled to play Mozart’s compositions, are deflated whenever they are required to play a piece from Salieri.
My second viewing of this show only enhanced my respect for it. It is a spectacular visual and aural feast, yes, but it keeps at its heart the power of Schaffer’s words and the big themes of life and death, God and man, genus and the ordinary, that make this iconic play so timeless.
I could write forever and a day about how this show makes me feel, the thoughts it stirs up in my head about man’s battles with the divine, and Salieri’s temerity to try to cut a deal with God, to dare to demand favours and special treatment only for God to throw it back in Salieri’s face by gifting all the talents to the most impudent and offensive of men.
It is this battle of faith and man’s vanity that obsessed me so much after my first viewing last year. The same applies this year too, but more so, my second viewing found me wrestling with the very concept of genius itself.
Adam’s spiky performance of Mozart ruffled a few feathers last year – mine too. But this time around I found his performance far more intriguing. Had he taken it down a notch or two? I couldn’t tell. Rather, I think the change was my own self-awareness. Had I too fallen into the same trap as Salieri last year? Had I too been so offended by this petulant, juvenile Mozart in front of me that I too could not believe this was a fair portrayal of genius? I think that might have been the case.
Now I see Adam’s performance as far more risky, far bolder. And one that’s there to really force us to confront what we see as the acceptable face of genius.
What is genius anyway? What do we think it looks like? Much of this take on true events is fictionalised, of course – for a start, Mozart worked far harder at his operas than this play suggests. But genius is a breath-taking talent, for sure. A way to conceive and see method and result in an entirely different way from the orthodox viewpoint.
Here, Mozart defies tradition and convention. He scorns previous composers and his peers preferring to rip classical music for its stale, lofty perch and bring it to the people. But his genius is not instantly recognised. Indeed, it is God’s curse on Salieri that only he can understand its brilliance, that only he has the ear to understand what radical work Mozart has created.
And genius does not always come in the pressed and clean acceptable packages we desire. It does not come, whisper it quietly, in a body and mind that will appeal and placate the middle and upper classes. This Mozart is not a sedate young man in a wig, but an offensive imbecile. And that prejudice is one we are forced to confront in this wonderful production if we too are to be humble in the presence of greatness.
National Theatre, London, to April 24, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Marc Brenner.