Review: Amadeus at the National Theatre

A decent revival, but style wins over substance.

The National theatre’s Olivier stage, the largest of its three theatre spaces, has a reputation for housing many of its biggest successes to date. It was the birthplace of War Horse and regularly plays host to productions with big budgets and excellent production values. There has been a lot of excitement in the run-up to their new production of Amadeus, the first large-scale London revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play in over two decades, and its opening is a significant moment in Artistic Director Rufus Norris’s first year at the helm of this national institution.

Told through the eyes of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus imagines the two musicians as artistic rivals fighting for attention and accolades from Emperor Joseph II and the upper echelons of Austrian (and European) society throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century. Though there is evidence to suggest such a rivalry did exist, Shaffer’s account of their relationship is highly fictionalised but was so popular on its first outing in the late seventies that it received a Broadway transfer and went on to win many awards before being adapted into a movie in 1984.

Lucian Msamati as Salieri is a strong presence, and his rich baritone voice lends itself to Shaffer’s soliloquies (there are plenty). Occasionally his musical speech patterns do risk skimming over the rich detail in the text, and a slightly wavering Italian accent doesn’t help proceedings. On the whole though, he makes for an entertaining and endearing anti-hero. A fiercely competitive and deeply embittered man of God, Salieri resents Mozart’s perceived genius, one which he sees as incompatible with someone so callous and ungodly. Msamati portrays this increasing disillusionment and jealousy with a calm and almost deadpan delivery, hinting at the anguish beneath without ever really giving it full voice. He is eminently watchable, though at times his smooth delivery and calm demeanour risk leaving the character a little under-energised.

At the other end of the scale, Adam Gillen’s Mozart is a twitching bundle of bizarre physicality and exaggerated idiosyncrasies. His performance is so heavily punctuated by his grotesque restlessness, that occasionally the syntax gets mangled beyond recognition. That said, his enigmatic performance (though exhausting to watch) is thoroughly addictive: he blends childlike naivety with an anarchistic streak of self-destruction. But such is the level of energy with which he attacks the piece from the very start, he doesn’t really leave himself anywhere to go. Later in the play, when Mozart’s mental deterioration advances, one feels that Gillen has given us too much too soon, and the scenes lack impact. Perhaps here is an instance where less is more.

Though the success of the piece largely rests on the performances of its two leading actors, this latest incarnation of the play uses music to great effect. A live orchestra and opera singers add exciting texture to the production, and are indeed integral to the story. The musicians are onstage for most of the play, but barely stay still for longer than a couple of minutes. As well as performing excerpts of Mozart’s most famous scores, they provide almost constant underscoring, giving a haunting undercurrent to the story. The result is thrilling, and lends a wildly improvisational quality to the whole production.

With all the resources that have been pumped into Amadeus, it was always going to be memorable. Without doubt, this is a brave and interesting production that certainly packs a punch. Worth seeing if you can, but perhaps not to everyone’s taste. It’s a bold and invigorating revival and a story well told, even if the text gets drowned a little beneath all the bells and whistles.

GT gives Amadeus at the National Theatre — 3/5

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