Saturday 20 January 2018

Amadeus @ The National Theatre

Amadeus @ The National Theatre

The whole notion of rivalry is a rich source of drama. But in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, it's used to explore a much deeper theme: what is a genius?

Shaffer's play, revived last year at the National Theatre where it debuted in 1979 and now receiving a second run, is a fictional account of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Under director Michael Longhurst, the play is a celebration of the two composers and their music, a study of fame, and a smart reimagining of musical theatre. It is, in itself, a work of genius.

They say you should never meet your idols as they'll only disappoint. Salieri certainly doesn't idolise Mozart, but he is astonished at his talents. Upon meeting the young composer, however, the man behind the music does not meet his expectations. Brash, arrogant and precocious, Salieri describes Mozart as an "obscene child". Interestingly, it's not Mozart but God who receives the brunt of his jealousy - he believes Mozart's talent to be God-given and cannot fathom why he himself was not chosen for such a gift.

Lucian Msamati is an imposing stage presence as Salieri. He commands the stage and holds the audience in his palm, a master of words and storytelling. His opening monologue is perhaps a little too lengthy, but over the course of the play we watch him morph from successful composer to a man twisted by bitterness, a manipulator whose desperation for fame blinds him as he cannot comprehend his position in the world.

Msamati dominates, but Adam Gillen offers a memorable performance as Mozart. He is childlike, eccentric and flamboyant, alien to the musical court and caring only for his art. In front of an orchestra, he turns into a rockstar with his bleached punk hair and extravagantly vibrant clothing, more dancer than conductor. He is cocky and impetuous - completely at odds with the delicacy and emotion of his music - but as Salieri's madness takes hold, we cannot help but sympathise with this pathetic man-child.

Does this mis-match of music and man even matter? And what of legacy? Salieri may receive riches during his lifetime, but his thirst for the godliness that he sees in Mozart's music can never be satiated. Mozart, meanwhile, eventually dies a pauper but his musical legacy outlives him. Is the curse of a genius to die before a legacy can be truly celebrated?

Shaffer's play is full of such questions, despite boiling down to a very simple story of jealousy. Yet it's told, through Longhurst's direction, with such intelligence, profundity and artistic creativity. His smartest decision is to involve the Southbank Sinfonia, who provide the music of the piece, in the drama. They perform on-stage as court musicians, doubling as ensemble members within the narrative while simultaneously playing the music beautifully without a conductor. It ensures that Amadeus is a feast for both the eyes and the ears.

Chloe Lamford's stage design is sumptuous but leaves the sides and back of the stage exposed. The scene changes have a pleasingly mechanical feel as musicians and staging alike are wheeled on and off. And perspectives shift to shatter any semblance of a fourth wall between audience, performers and the court. It all lends the production a heightened theatricality that openly invites interpretation, while its narrative remains lucid throughout its three hour run time.

Amadeus is as amusing as it is thought-provoking, as simple as it is clever, and as innovative and creative as the music of the composer it reveres. This revival of Shaffer's magnum opus is a masterpiece.


Watch: Amadeus runs at the National Theatre until April 2018.