BWW Review: AMADEUS, National Theatre, 26 October 2016
Jealousy stalks this seminal work by the late Peter Shaffer, making a triumphant return to the theatre where it debuted in 1979. Court composer Salieri is cursed with just enough musical appreciation to realise how mediocre his efforts are in comparison with Mozart - whose instinctive genius is yoked to an obscene child persona - a realisation that shakes his fundamental faith. If music is God's art, why isn't his virtue rewarded with a divine voice? Why does the Almighty choose instead, as his conduit, someone who Salieri deems so unworthy?
Michael Longhurst's vigorous production plays up the contemporary echoes of this dilemma - though religious discourse is less prevalent, the debate over whether we can separate art from our perception and judgement of the artist is ongoing. There are modern visual nods, from Krispy Kreme doughnuts and buzzing phones to Mozart sporting Doc Martens with his garish frock coats (great touches by Chloe Lamford), as well as a hedonistic club vibe in Imogen Knight's choreography.
This isn't dusty history, but pulsating, immediate tragedy. The 20-piece Southbank Sinfonia are slickly integrated into the expressive ensemble, licking their fingers as Salieri confides his weakness for sweetmeats, or bowing their heads as he offers up a prayer - offering both musical and dramatic underscoring that imbues the piece with enormous power.
It also illustrates the prophetic argument put forward by Mozart, who believes passionately that art should be rooted in life, not placed on some dusty pedestal. The final insult for Salieri is that his own depictions of mythic figures render them ordinary, while Mozart elevates ordinary people into legends, both immortalising and inviting in the populace. That progressive democratisation may be the biggest crime for the 18th-century court - and is certainly a potent topic right now.
The production is anchored by a pair of contrasting yet symbiotic performances from Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen. The former provides a fascinatingly fussy Salieri; Karla Crome's warm, perceptive Constanze rightly calls him out on his carefully constructed small-town boy act, among others. Msamati brilliantly shifts through various layers of performance, whether playing court politics, calculatedly using his Italian origins, or pretending to mentor Mozart, even as he plots to destroy him.
Speaking to us, the ghosts summoned to hear his deathbed confession, he's hilariously dry - Msamati draws a big laugh from "Was it then, so early, I started to have thoughts of murder?" - and cursed with self-knowledge. He realises his work is pedestrian and, like his persona, too studied; that those who revere him are mistaken. He becomes a gilded statue, entombed by unearned riches.
But his visceral response to Mozart's work - the crippling, simultaneous agony and ecstasy, the scrabbling at his stock as he gasps for breath, or clutching at his stomach - tells him this is what will stand the test of time. It's a complex torture superbly conveyed, in a performance that earns our understanding even as it challenges our sympathies.
Adam Gillen's Mozart bursts into the exquisite artifice of Vienna - excessive opera scenery used to great effect - like a rampaging bull. He embodies the shock of the new, brutally uncaring for the past he tramples upon. Crude and potty-mouthed, animalistic and unfiltered, he's primal urges unleashed, a petulant prodigy never taught to conceal them with social graces. But his adrenaline-fuelled lust for life makes the music, too, feel genuinely radical: pieces that soften with familiarity here are spine-tinglingly vital.
Gillen's is a big performance, but still nuanced; his Mozart may be unaware that he's obsessively curling his hair with his fingers, or stepping on a royal punch line, but he can switch languages with voluble passion, articulate an insightful idea, or conduct an orchestra with rock star strut and swagger. He's an unconventional genius - as trying to us as he is to Salieri, but a genius nonetheless. When he crawls onto the piano stool to transform his rival's humdrum march into pure poetry, it's an electrifying moment, and when he sinks into vulnerable decline, it's genuinely heartrending.
There's great support from Tom Edden's clueless Emperor, Hugh Sachs's pompous Rosenberg and Geoffrey Beevers's lugubrious Baron - the competing factions of court crisply evoked - plus Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun as Salieri's spies. And, of course, from the great musicians and singers, with Salieri's commentary and the witty segues into live performance offering a thrilling primer to indelible, awe-inspiring yet freshly accessible work. A note-perfect revival.
Picture credit: Marc Brenner