By Peter Shaffer
National TheatreReviewer: Andy Millward
Taking on a production of the late and great Peter Schaffer‘s masterpiece Amadeus is an act of bravado, not something to be done lightly – even for a company as celebrated as the National. Just as Shakespearean productions are forever compared to those that went before, you cannot but compare to previous interpretations, but especially to powerful performances. With Amadeus, starting with Paul Schofield playing Salieri in 1979 and progressing via acting royalty in the form of Ian McKellen, David Suchet and Rupert Everett.
But the real issue is that Milos Forman‘s film version with F Murray Abraham in the vast central role was definitive. For comparison, can you imagine any production of Oliver! with Fagin played other than by Ron Moody? There are plenty of examples where a great performance on film becomes a noose around the head of any actor playing the same role on stage or film remakes.
Lucian Msamati is the actor who has taken courage in both hands for Michael Longhurst’s production of the play at the National, and with it the challenge of breathing new life into Salieri and to suffer the inevitable comparisons.
Let’s start by getting out of the way the one difference, namely that Msamati is, in his own words, of “a chocolatey hue” but “if you want to see what Salieri looks like, Google him.” Msamati is a Tanzanian/British actor, one whose origins make an excellent parallel to the small town Italian Salieri, who finds himself elevated to the Viennese Court as Court Composer to Tom Edden‘s deliciously fickle Joseph II.
First though, what of the look and feel of the production? At face value Chloe Lamford‘s design appears minimal, but for a set that rises, falls and shunts backwards to create and constrict spaces. It transforms easily into a concert hall or to a party venue while defaulting to Salieri’s lush salon.
At no stage does it feel specifically Viennese, though the costumes create the period feel, contrasting sharply with the anachronistic presence on stage of a mobile phone and a renowned American brand of doughnuts. Mozart’s outfits feel more clown-like and brazenly ahead of the fashion compared to the more subdued outfits of the day – though even these are more colourful and flamboyant than you might suppose, contrasting with the black worn by the musicians.
Talking of whom, the most decisive change from previous stagings is the integration of the Southbank Simfonia and singers in the action at every level. This includes acting but more decisively the musicians, and indeed their instruments, become the arbiters of feeling and movement. True, on occasion, mostly during operatic scenes, they do subside into their hydraulic pit, but mostly they slouch and sidle about the stage as a meaningful crowd representing the mood of the Viennese, harmonise empathetically or merely revolt against the inferior music of Salieri.
Unchained from their music stands as the Simfonia are, their music is liberated from convention, taking in jazzy segments, the odd ragtime phrase, strident modernism in the form of discordant arrays of notes, helping to remind us that Mozart was akin to the rock god, or perhaps even the Johnny Rotten of his day in behaviour and radical music. Mozart, the music tells us, defied all commonly held musical orthodoxies of the day, thereby a clash with the conservative views in the court was inevitable.
No doubt about it, Adam Gillen‘s Mozart is a spoiled brat of a musician, though in Salieri’s heavily prejudiced yarn Mozart is but an instrument of god, put on earth to torment the man who had devoted his life to music, asked only for fame but was tortured by being the only man of the era to appreciate the genius of Mozart. This production makes the most of the music, echoing successfully the work of the late Sir Neville Marriner in Forman’s film.
At first the brattish vulgarity seemed overdone, though as the production progressed I found Gillen’s Wolfgang Amadeus growing on me, primarily because the emotional outbursts concealed a deeper feeling of yearning to be loved and wanted for his music. He lacks Tom Hulce‘s high-pitched giggle but provides his own very singular and petulant display of rudeness. This Mozart grows easily frustrated with the politics of music and the court, recognising only the perfection of his own creations, which frustration spills out into insults that affront and outrage his allies in court.
In Salieri he has a dangerous friend, one who sees Mozart as a pawn in his battle with the deity. Msamati’s Salieri has cunning but is more nakedly emotional in his confessions to the audience than Abraham or other Salieris, indicative of a moral compass that outlives his rejection of a cruel and vengeful god. He does not demand our forgiveness, but makes a sly justification for his actions along the “wouldn’t you have done too?” lines. Msamati’s Salieri is a powerful, charismatic but damned tragic figure with something of the Lear about him as he curses his own fortunes.
While the dialogue and history are both richer, the greatest weakness of the original stage version of Amadeus, when compared to Shaffer’s film adaptation, comes in the form of a plot change. It feels absolutely right that Salieri should come back to haunt Mozart in the cape and tricorn hat of Leopold Mozart to make him write the Requiem Mass, yet here is Mozart’s imagination that conjures up his father. More than that, Salieri’s fevered imagination sees this as god’s final punishment of him, that Mozart should write a requiem mass to him.
A word too for the other principle actors, notably Karla Crome‘s east end gal of a Constanze Mozart, the oozing evil of Hugh Sachs‘s Count Orsini-Rosenberg and Geoffrey Beever‘s decent and loyal Freemason Baron van Swieten. The singers do full justice to each of Mozart’s most famed operas (the ones featured in the play being Die Entführung aus dem Serail, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute – though how the Emperor could yawn at Figaro is a mystery we might never resolve.
No doubt that Longhurst and Msamati have breathed new life into a fine and much loved play, though the inspiration of this production will doubtless be subverted by a further stroke of genius in a few years’ time. After all, I never tire of Hamlet and I doubt very much whether I will ever tire of Amadeus.