'Amadeus': Theater Review

Courtesy of Marc Brenner/National Theatre
Adam Gillen (left) and Lucian Msamati in 'Amadeus'
Imperfect casting, but still a rich visual and musical feast.
1/26/2017

Peter Shaffer's classic psychodrama about the murderous musical rivalry between Mozart and Salieri returns for its first major London revival in almost 20 years.

What a shame Peter Shaffer, who died in June at age 90, did not live to see this latest spectacular revival of his most celebrated play. Already showered with glowing praise by the British press, director Michael Longhurst's stylistically bold Amadeus is an imaginative and mostly satisfying grand-scale reboot, which could well travel further afield once its initial London run ends in January. It also will be broadcast to cinemas on Feb. 2 as part of the NT Live series.

Premiered in this very theater back in 1979, Amadeus enjoyed award-winning runs in London and New York, and inspired Milos Forman's 1984 film adaptation, which won eight Oscars, including best picture. In the first major London revival since 1999, Longhurst's marathon three-hour epic applies extra gloss and glitter to Shaffer's tragicomic psychodrama without compromising its sardonic, self-aware wit.

Set in late 18th century Vienna, Amadeus chronicles the mutually destructive love-hate rivalry between pious Italian-born court composer Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen), the vulgar young Austrian upstart whose musical genius is undermined by his uncouth, volatile, rebellious temperament. Shaffer's audaciously fabricated plot plants all-consuming feelings of jealousy in the musically inferior Salieri, leading him to abandon his lofty religious principles and secretly engineer Mozart's demise, even scheming to poison him.

While Forman's film opened out the play into a more even two-hander, Longhurst's revival restores Shaffer's original focus on Salieri. Thus a heavy dramatic obligation falls on the British-Tanazanian actor Msamati, who rises to the challenge by striking a soul-weary, self-mocking note where previous depictions have leaned more towards icy Machiavellian guile. Stepping into big shoes previously worn by Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, F. Murray Abraham and other heavyweights, Msamati succeeds in making the role his own.

Last year, Msamati became the first black actor to play Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and there are Iago-like undertones in his depiction of Salieiri's duplicitous fake friendship with Mozart. Slipping into African-accented English between flurries of Italian and German, he lends a teasing contemporary subtext of racial tension to the drama, though this production's racially mixed cast obviously resists such a simplistic binary interpretation. He also pulls off Salieri's time-jumping shifts between middle age and old age with unshowy ease.

Gillen's performance is more problematic. He delivers Mozart's scatological four-letter outbursts and acrobatic slapstick with gusto, but struggles to convey the charismatic complexity behind the clownish public persona. While his snorting, giggling, face-pulling antics raise plenty of laughs, they feel more like those of a minor Batman villain than a game-changing genius. Compared to previous inhabitants of this role, from Tim Curry to Tom Hulce to Michael Sheen, Gillen's mercurial portrayal lacks depth and volume. The blame for this partly lies with Shaffer and Longhurt, of course, but a little more psychological heft on Mozart's side would have given Salieri's envy more persuasive bite.

Longhurst's fluid, widescreen staging injects fresh energy into Shaffer's verbose and occasionally windy prose. His most inspired innovation is merging the 21-piece Southbank Sinfonia and six singers into the large ensemble cast, literally putting the music center stage. This amplifies the sense of 18th century Vienna as a bustling, gossipy, immersive artistic hothouse rather than a historically remote cultural museum.

As well as scoring superbly staged vignettes from The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and more, the Sinfonia players also soundtrack the drama with Simon Slater's additional musical pieces, which cover the spectrum from slinky jazz to doomy moodscapes. There is even a riotous orchestral-disco interlude during an orgiastic party scene, which brings a dash of Studio 54 decadence to Vienna's imperial palaces.

Chloe Lamford's dynamic stage design is another sensory treat, finding fertile middle ground between minimalism and opulence, filling the National's largest performance space with artfully choreographed crowd scenes and colorful blasts of peacock pageantry. At various points in the drama this cavernous atrium is dominated by a mobile proscenium-arch stage, an asymmetrical swoop of outsized drapes and a gliding podium topped by trilling soprano divas.

Shaffer may not have intended his hymn of absolution to artistic mediocrities to be quite so overblown on stage, but Longhurst's sumptuous revival finds some fruitful new connections between form and content. In his hands, Amadeus is no longer just a witty psychodrama about rival opera composers, but an opera in its own right.

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Lucian Msamati, Adam Gillen, Karla Crome, Sarah Amankwah, Hammed Animashaun, Tom Edden, Alexandra Mathie, Hugh Sachs, Geoffrey Beevers, Fleur De Bray
Director: Michael Longhurst
Playwright: Peter Shaffer
Set designer: Chloe Lamford
Costume supervisor: Poppy Hall
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music/music director: Simon Slater
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Choreographer: Imogen Knight
Presented by National Theatre

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