Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is above all a play about living with change; about what it feels like to watch the world leaving you behind. For the play’s Antonio Salieri, this change is the shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism: the dawning of a new era in which the certainties of patronage, politeness and dutiful composition are threatened by lightning bolts of creative genius. Like a divine indictment of enlightened convention, Mozart enters the musical landscape of 1781 Vienna, and in the process stamps his name on what should have been Salieri’s story. The senior musician is Court Composer, a Kapellmeister-in-waiting, recipient of far greater official recognition and worldly success than Mozart would ever know. Still, if Salieri is to stand any chance of being remembered, he must refashion himself in terms a Romantic age might appreciate: as a murderer or as a compulsive liar; as a vocally conflicted self; as Mozart’s Iago, his greatest admirer and fiercest, unacknowledged rival.
This is an overly convenient narrative, of course. From its opening scene, set at the time of Salieri’s own death (in 1825), the play emphasises that the story we will witness is itself a piece of Romantic-period mythmaking. This is history written by the winner in a time when losers – gifted failures and mercurial souls too brilliant for this world – are instead all the rage. It is logical, then, as well as an ironic indication of Mozart’s subtle triumph, that Salieri’s narrative should be a thoroughly subjective one, dwelling on what has been lost but reliant on the language that has taken its place. Was Mozart really the anti-Enlightenment figure presented here? Were his neglect and abuse by the musical establishment so consistently severe? The play revels in its own unreliability on these points. And yet, for all that we might question the neat binaries that Salieri and Shaffer offer us, there is something undeniably poignant about the main character’s struggle to understand a world changed so irrevocably. In setting the scene for his story, Salieri describes how the falling of the guillotine in France would eventually “cut all our lives in half”. Without wishing to hyperbolise, I wonder how many audience members at the National Theatre’s recent production reflected, as I certainly did, on whether we may come to look back on the sudden obsolescence of our own liberal certainties in the same light.
Regardless of one’s hopes and fears on that score, this was a wonderful production of a play that feels just as vibrant as it must have done on its premiere at the same theatre in 1979. In the role of Salieri, Lucian Msamati demonstrated equal versatility to that of F. Murray Abraham in Milos Forman’s 1984 screen adaptation. Abraham has often said that his Oscar-winning performance led to him being typecast as villainous or tortured characters. It may be that Msamati experiences something rather different, since his impeccable comic timing was just as impressive as his dramatic intensity in this production. And while I would normally feel that an actor’s skin colour is neither here nor there when assessing a performance, his Tanzanian background also added a different dimension to the play’s nostalgia for Enlightenment values. As part of the same scene-setting speech quoted above, Salieri reflects on a general perception that eighteenth-century musicians were “the willing slaves of the well-to-do”. In this production more than any other, we were likely to remember the actual, unwilling slaves whose sufferings underwrote and undermined the very claims to enlightened virtue which the main character purports to defend.
One might worry that a play so full of ideas and fuelled by intellectual argument would end up being rather dry. Thanks in equal part to Shaffer’s writing and to Michael Longhurst’s assured direction, there was never any danger of this in the National Theatre’s production. The action moved along briskly; there was little fussing over props or furnishings, and this contributed to the sense that we were watching an avowedly patchy and partial reconstruction of the past. The production’s use of music was likewise integral to its success. My only disappointment was that the members of the excellent Southbank Sinfonia were not named and celebrated individually in the play’s programme. In truth, they deserved to be listed alongside the cast. They performed all over the stage, responding (often hilariously) to the action of the play; in short, they were excellent actors and actresses as well as being accomplished orchestral players.
If I have one hesitation about the production itself, it centres on our Amadeus. Fans of eighteenth-century culture may remember Adam Gillen from his histrionic, borderline-anti-Semitic portrayal of Moses in Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal (Barbican, 2011). I didn’t find Gillen’s Mozart quite as offensive as that performance. I also realise that Shaffer’s Mozart is meant to be vulgar, sex-obsessed, obnoxious in the extreme. And yet… this isn’t supposed to be at the expense of his essential innocence, the one point of continuity between his brash personality and the joy of his musical accomplishments. I didn’t have a problem with Gillen’s performance when he played Mozart as an overgrown toddler, but at times he verged on a more calculated belligerence that made it harder for him to sell the character’s underlying decency. Perhaps the problem stems from his voice first and foremost. I don’t know how Simon Callow spoke his lines in the original production, but in Forman’s film, Tom Hulce’s American accent lends Mozart a sweetness and ingenuousness that were mostly lacking here. Gillen’s voice was, by contrast, a nagging, self-satisfied whine – a valid interpretation of the source material, perhaps, but not one that does much service to the character in my opinion.
Nonetheless, I cannot fault the passion and liveliness of any of the cast, Gillen included. This was an important, timely revival that will hopefully live on through cinema screenings if not an international transfer.
Amadeus, directed by Michael Longhurst, was at the National Theatre from 19th October 2016 to 18th March 2017. It will return to the National Theatre in January and February 2018.