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Interview: Adam Gillen On Playing Mozart In AMADEUS

Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen in rehearsal

Actor Adam Gillen's diverse credits include A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre, The School for Scandal at the Barbican and the RSC's Wendy and Peter, as well as TV hits Fresh Meat, Prisoners' Wives and Benidorm. He's currently starring as Mozart, opposite Lucian Msamati as rival composer Salieri, in the National Theatre revival of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, which begins previews later this month.

What was your first theatre experience?

When I was about 16, I saw Tom Courtney in Uncle Vanya at the Royal Exchange - it was just beautiful theatre. His presence was so magnetic. He wasn't a show-off, but he drew people in - I was fascinated by every move he made. I thought, "That's how to hold people's attention and tell a story."

We didn't have a very active drama department at school, but a history teacher recommended this Saturday drama class. It was two wonderful ladies, a mother and daughter, and they were short on boys. My teacher thought it would bring me out of myself, as I was as shy kid, and I got hooked. Later on a friend of mine went to RADA and I realised I wanted to do the same.

What was your first job in theatre?

It was at the National actually - a modern play called The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder. Larry Lamb played my dad. I was incredibly lucky to have that experience early on - I learned so much so quickly, surrounded by these wonderful, nurturing actors. I loved working here, and it's such a treat to be back again.

Did you know Amadeus well?

I knew the film from way back - Tom Hulce was amazing as Mozart. It's such a rich piece. To be able to play somebody so outrageous and irreverent, but whose output is so respected, that's fascinating. There's a lesson there for us. Don't dismiss anarchists - they have something to say.

Adam Gillen in rehearsal

What's your take on the character?

He's immature and vulgar - it's fun to play some of the facets I guess were in me anyway! But we really wanted to stress that sexual energy too. He is childish in that he gives into those petty jealousies and competitiveness, but actually it's more animalistic, the alpha male dominance of the silver-backed gorilla. He's definitely not wet - there's real backbone and strength, and muscularity in his speaking.

It's an epic play and Mozart has an epic journey, so just the scale of the experience is amazing for an actor, going through all these different stages. It's not often a part like this comes along, so I'm properly immersing myself in it.

Have you and Lucian found it easy to figure out your dynamic?

Yes, we get on really well - but not too well! I always think he's putting up two fingers behind my back. No, he's an incredible actor, and it's brilliant playing opposite him - I'm learning all the time. He's a different type of performer to me, so I feel like we really complement these people who are poles apart. I love how he keeps reacting to me in new ways, and now we know our characters really well we can play around, so every time feels different.

What's the rehearsal process been like?

Michael [Longhurst] is such an easy-going director - he makes you feel comfortable, and he's got such great economy of language. He knows just what to say to point you in the right direction. It's been a really creative room too, with everyone chipping in with ideas.

Were you familiar with the music?

I didn't really know it, but I loaded up my iPhone as soon as I heard I had a meeting for the part, and wound up listening to the whole of Don Giovanni. I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it. Classical music takes real concentration, like reading a book or watching a play - all the drama is in the twists and turns of the music, the builds of pressure and release.

It's an enlightening experience to realise I really like it. I didn't listen to it much before because it's not the kind of music that washes over you - you have to apply yourself. But if you give it time, it has this amazing narrative structure and the power of it is like nothing else.

Lucian Msamati and Southbank Sinfonia

What's it like having Southbank Sinfonia joining you?

I've spend the past couple of weeks conducting a 20-piece orchestra - who knew that would ever happen? They're not really following me, because if they did, I'd probably drive them off a cliff. I'm like a driver with no license getting into a Rolls-Royce. But I've been watching people like Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim on YouTube - how they feel their way through the music. It's a physical experience for them, and I'm trying to replicate that in my own way.

We've got six opera singers now too, and they're just extraordinary. They have no idea how talented they are, they're so modest - we've just watching them in awe. This skill they've honed over years, and they do it effortlessly.

Can you relate to the artistic frustrations in the play?

Definitely. As an actor, you can spend a lot of time frustrated - you can't find a project that tests you or you're unsatisfied creatively, or you have those down times. It's a real cathartic experience doing this play. We've all had that moment of not being listened to or taken seriously, or feeling a sense of injustice. And that's relatable to all walks of life, not just acting.

I was listening to Lucian doing a speech at the end of Act I about how it's not fair, that virtue and hard work should be rewarded - it should be a meritocracy and it isn't. That feels completely current, which is a pretty amazing achievement for a story set in the 1800s. Even though it's about this genius composer whose work lasted through the ages, it's still a play for today.

What about the religious aspect?

I was raised Catholic, and I'm very aware of the presence of God in people's lives - how they attribute good or bad things to it, or think about a divine plan, the presence of the Other. Of course it's different in Mozart's time, when God was ever-present in society - so to think that God chose to speak through him, this tiny maniac child, is extraordinary. That's the most outrageous aspect for Salieri.

Do you think appreciation for a work should be coloured by the person?

We probably choose to edit what we want to hear or not in terms of consumption. Like I'm a big Woody Allan fan, but it's always difficult to separate the person from the art. This play makes you ask yourself that question: you hear a genius is about to arrive, so who do you think will walk through the door? And does it matter?

Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen in rehearsal

Is this production strictly period or a bit more stylised?

It's a mix I'd say - the best things from the period and some modern ideas as well. It's certainly not a museum piece. It's delivered in a very current style, and it's accessible and exciting. It feels thrilling to be part of. The National gives you time to build something incredible and individual, something one-off. It's unlike anywhere in the space it gives people to create and the resources to back them up.

How much research did you do?

We did a lot on Mozart and Salieri and the history of Vienna. I didn't realise how much of a cultural centre it was at the time - all the great art and music coming out of Vienna. I've learned loads. And there was a field trip, going to the dress run of Don Giovanni at the Coliseum - which was great for me, because I'm now a big opera fan!

What would you like to do in the future work wise?

I've enjoyed this immensely - I'd happily work loads more at the National. Just walking through this building is a joy. There are all these talented people in every department - everyone's at the top of their game. Otherwise I tend not to think too far ahead. That's the fun of the adventure - seeing where you end up that you could never have imagined.

Finally, what should audiences expect from Amadeus?

It'll be thrilling, start to finish. There's no downtime - it's packed full of detail. Michael's so good at making every moment feel rich. There's always something changing, keeping you on your toes. There are great comic moments and epic drama - it's the full theatrical package. And Mozart's music is the cherry on top!

Amadeus is currently booking at the National Theatre 19 October-26 January 2017, with an NT Live broadcast on 2 February 2017. Further bookings to be announced

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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