Artistry breeds immortality in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, as the portrait of a Mozart with a personality as grand as his piano makes its return to the boards that supported its 1979 premiere. Artistry breeds immortality, too, in director Michael Longhurst’s Amadeus, as the wit, the tension, the brattiness, the cunning and the drippy, perverse sexuality of the writer’s work makes itself heard just months after Shaffer’s death in June this year. In this homecoming, welcoming audiences drawn by 1984’s 8-time Academy Award-winning film adaptation, there’s one unmistakable refrain: great work lasts the test of time.
Creative immortality is the manuscript over which this production scores so highly, and the punchline that marks the downfall of Antonio Salieri, the villain whose calculated victories are confined within the limits of his own lifetime. That said, our villain – played with exasperation and urgency by the jaw-dropping Lucian Msamati – makes a valiant attempt to hold the reins on the tale of Mozart’s journey from showy, blindfolded musical prodigy, to the nursery-rhyme humming madman who is approaching his ultimate “fine”. As a character, Adam Gillen’s rascal of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart make no effort to quell his competitor’s scheming. Amadeus, the mortal, has a toddler’s predilection for talking about poo, and Gillen splendidly communicates the unfiltered personality of our potty-mouthed genius through an excess of energy and bounce that unthinkingly mocks the other man.
Meanwhile Mozart, the legend, invisibly dominates the stage. Through a close partnership with musical director Simon Slater, Longhurst collides Salieri’s poisonous interpretation of the composer’s life with a fuller, timeless interpretation of Mozart’s work – an interpretation that is delivered in megamix fashion, as operas are presented in miniature by musicians, versatile soprano Fleur de Bray, and a mellifluous ensemble. Throughout, the space populated by our warring composers is shared with members of the Southbank Sinfonia, whose casual presence adds a temporal tension. Lifted from the darkness of the pit, the musicians lick imaginary Krispy Kremes off their fingers, with a loud smooching that works as an overture to the production’s impure sensuality. Dressed in sleek, modern styles, transporting their instruments in robust, sensible carriers, muddying the tuning-up process with crisp mobile phone beeps, and offering the occasional grimace to Salieri’s more ambitious ideas, these musicians work in tension with Msamati’s manipulative narrative. In a constant spoiler, the players employ our own knowledge of Mozart’s longstanding reputation to leave us in no doubt about who has won this battle of virtuosos.
Though his character fails to retain mastery of the plot, no one could accuse Msamati of failing to grip our attentions. As he spins his sharply curated version of events, Msamati’s Salieri drags us into a world of magnified theatricality – of creativity, of grandeur, of deceit. While Msamati fights to get us on side, designer Chloe Lamford’s *art-fully* shrunken set plays its part in celebrating the artifice of performance. Shadows cast by visible parcans fall rudely upon a thin curtain, as props are whisked onto stage by hurried stage managers. Falling cherubs make an occasional appearance, diving down over classical footlight shells, as two-dimensional homages to ancient architecture furnish rapidly transforming theatrical spaces. We travel from The Marriage of Figaro to Don Giovanni, following vanishing points and staircases that whisk us off to dusty corners of our imaginations.
From under all of this effort and artifice, Gillen’s Amadeus emerges in a tapestry jacket, mustard trousers, and pastel pink DMs as a discordant vision of a life governed by expression over expectation. There’s a desperate energy to Gillen’s performance that seems strangely natural – a precocious man-child who knows his own greatness, forced to urgency by the weight of his own unlaboured talent. From his flat, baby like-intonation and unsettling, braying laugh, to the relentless rhythm of his impatient foot, to his easy ability to transform ditty into masterpiece, to his seamless command of German, Italian and French, Gillen’s vulgar character, unlikeable as he may be, collides countless impurities to bring clarity, direction, and – above all – a weighty integrity to the real Mozart’s magnificent musical output.
Amadeus is on at the National Theatre until 2017. Click here for more details.