The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Autumn-Winter 2016
With this new production of Peter Shaffer's 1979 drama the National Theatre dips into the archives for one of its greatest hits and finds all the play's power with fresh interpretations and characterisations that illuminate it in ways even the brilliant original didn't.
Amadeus is the imagined story of Antonio Salieri, hailed in eighteenth-century Europe as the continent's greatest composer and musician, while former child prodigy Wolfgang Mozart declined into obscurity and poverty.
Shaffer's drama-generating guess is that Salieri could have been the only one with enough musical knowledge and sensitivity to recognise Mozart's genius, and that that awareness would make him feel his own inferiority and the emptiness of all his acclaim.
Declaring himself 'the patron saint of mediocrities' Salieri takes Mozart's existence as a personal insult from God and sets out to foil the deity by destroying his instrument.
(You may have spotted something here. All of Peter Shaffer's major plays – Royal Hunt of The Sun, Equus, The Battle of Shrivings, Yonadab, Amadeus – have the same basic outline. A man of small soul encounters a saint/hero/genius and feels compelled to destroy him, damning himself in the process. It is not uncommon for playwrights to have recurring themes, but few are as transparent as Shaffer.)
Some of us are old enough to remember the 1979 production, where Paul Scofield played Salieri as a mountain of ego and determination, declaring war on God as an equal, while Simon Callow's Mozart was an idiot child and buffoon who just happened to be a musical genius.
Here director Michael Longhurst guides his actors to more modulated and complex – and thus more sympathetic – characterisations.
Lucian Msamati's Salieri is life-sized, aware in his heart even as he defies God that he is bound to lose but hoping at least to be an annoying wasp. And Adam Gillen's Mozart is less an uncouth boor than an Asperger-savant, amiably trying to be friendly and normal but just not very good at it.
The result is that neither is a caricature and both show enough recognisable humanity and unhappiness to remain sympathetic throughout, and the climactic scene of the damned man begging forgiveness from the dying man is movingly tragic in power.
Earlier, director Longhurst and actor Msamati find resonant new ways to play the brilliant first act climax, where Salieri looks at some Mozart musical scores and he hears in his mind (and we hear out loud) the exquisite music they represent.
Thirty-six years later I still can see Paul Scofield standing almost motionless while a string of emotions – wonder, pleasure, amazement, despair, anger – raced across his face.
Msamati and Longhurst have Salieri physically battered by the force of beauty, as if by hurricane winds or a boxer's body blows, and it is an equally stunning theatrical moment.
Elsewhere Karla Crome plays Constanze Mozart, not as a vulgar peasant but as a street-smart and practical (and very modern) woman, giving her character and her scenes an edge that adds to the drama.
But putting the Southbank Sinfonia onstage, in modern dress, not only clutters things up but weakens the illusion of time and place, as does having the second act open with cast and musicians wandering onstage, doing exercises and taking selfies.
Of all Peter Shaffer's reworkings of his one basic plot, I've always rated Equus above Amadeus. But this new production raises it to the top rank, and Lucian Msamati's performance is a strong candidate for finest of the year.
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