wed 21/02/2024

Amadeus, National Theatre at Home review – wild dance at the edges of sanity | reviews, news & interviews

Amadeus, National Theatre at Home review – wild dance at the edges of sanity

Amadeus, National Theatre at Home review – wild dance at the edges of sanity

As Mozart, Adam Gillen erupts onto the stage as a Tourette’s tornado

Malignant envy: Lucian Msamati in 'Amadeus'Marc Brenner

It is 41 years since Peter Shaffer ripped off Mozart’s respectable façade to reveal a foul-mouthed verbally incontinent child-man with no more ability to control his behaviour than his genius.

Inspired by a short story by Alexander Pushkin that put forward the theory that Salieri murdered Mozart, he fleshed out bare biographical bones with virtuoso obscenity as part of an extraordinary study of obsession, cut-throat professional rivalry and malignant jealousy.

Michael Longhurst’s astonishing, exhilarating production for the National Theatre takes a stage-play that many felt was eclipsed by Milos Forman’s 1984 film and turns it into a wild dance through the edges of sanity. The brilliant sleight-of-hand here is to bring the orchestra on stage, so that the players become like a dynamic Greek chorus, alternately commenting on the action as the gossipmongers of Vienna or bringing Mozart’s music ecstatically to life. 

What’s striking about watching this version of Amadeus is to see quite how much it owes to theatrical tradition. In Salieri’s plea-bargaining with God to give him the divine spark that will elevate him over all other composers, we hear echoes of Dr Faustus, in Mozart’s wretched trajectory from celebrated wunderkind to chronically sick pauper we see ancient Greek tales of hubris. A further dynamic is introduced by casting the charismatically choleric Lucian Msamati as the envious Salieri. Msamati made history by playing the first black Iago for the RSC five years ago; here again, we watch him take the seeds of another person’s character and plant them so he destroys himself.

Any production of course lives or dies by the central performance of Mozart, and Adam Gillen (pictured below, centre) erupts onto the stage as a Tourette’s tornado, a whirl of obscenity and bumptiousness, an infuriating overgrown toddler-genius. He makes him as much a child of the Eighties as of the 18th century, with a vocal delivery that owes more to Ade Edmondson in The Young Ones and Bottom than it does to the film’s Tom Hulce.

Adam Gillen in AmadeusThe music is a character in itself here, and under Simon Slater’s simultaneously sensitive and high-spirited direction, the Southbank Sinfonia delivers beautifully. It gives enthralling interpretations of every work from the Adagio of Mozart’s Gran Partita for winds to his gorgeous dramatic Mass in C minor, from The Marriage of Figaro to his Requiem. You appreciate anew quite how clever it is for Shaffer to have selected the Partita's Adagio for Salieri to explain the nature of Mozart’s genius in the first instance. The exquisite reflective harmonies and the agonising beauty of the melody are in utter counterpoint to the unreflective eruptions of Mozart’s turbulent personality. It’s a perfect demonstration of the elusive nature of genius and where it may or may not strike.

There is of course plenty of historical evidence to debunk this radical rewriting of who Mozart was. But Shaffer has committed no more of a crime than Shakespeare did with his reinvention of Macbeth, who was apparently a good man and honourable soldier who died of old age in his bed. 

What the play does do is conduct a searing investigation into the ever-electric issue of creative rivalry and what genius is – albeit in its most romantic sense. It chooses, for instance, to ignore the fact that Mozart’s father had a brilliant teaching model that turned not just Wolfgang but his elder sister Nannerl into performing and compositional prodigies. That after all, would spoil the fun – this isn’t about logic but divine fire. Like Shaffer’s Equus it seeks to show how powerfully all of us are ultimately moved by forces we cannot explain.

Tim Van Someren’s film of this last work in the National Theatre at Home's superlative season powerfully captures the dynamic of the production, making it feel as if you are sitting in the best stalls seats. Besides Msamati and Gillen, there is a fantastic gutsy performance from Karla Crome’s Constanze Mozart and Fleur-de-Bray’s honey-voiced Katherina Cavalieri. Watching the production in 2020, it’s difficult not to observe that both Mozart and Salieri would have squirmed under the microscope of the #MeToo movement, and, just as horrifyingly, that Mozart’s disdain for foreigners would have probably made him a Brexiteer. Yet this does not detract from the richness and intelligence of play which is, after all, a dissection of human fallibility and an uncomfortable probe into what lengths anyone might go to in order to elevate themselves above their rivals.

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