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Amadeus at The National

Best known as a 1985 Oscar-winning film, Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus returns to the stage in a blockbuster production at The National. 

Under the narrative guidance of Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati), court composer to the Austrian King, the play unravels the life and music of one of the greatest composers of all time, Wolfgang ‘Amadeus’ Mozart.

Carted around Europe as a child prodigy, Mozart (Adam Gillen) arrives in Vienna, the illustrious musical capital of Europe, his reputation preceding him. Salieri is keen to meet him but soon shocked to discover the virtuoso is a hyper, brattish man-child with an enthusiasm for scatalogical humour. Yet Salieri is only too aware of Mozart’s genius – he is able to translate music from his head and onto the page without error, conjuring the most mellifluous of melodies with enviable ease. While many don’t fully appreciate Mozart’s gift, Salieri does and is jealous, his life becoming a drawn-out vendetta against Mozart and the God who endowed such an undeserving subject with such divine music.

The show’s first half is hugely arresting, thanks in large part to the sublime production. Chloe Lamford’s spectacular set hypnotises the eyes with the venerable splendour of affluent Vienna, whilst The Southbank Sinfonia enrapture the ears with snippets of Wolfgang’s greatest hits. The musicians and six sopranos are a joy to hear in the flesh and manage to adapt to the acoustics of the Olivier Theatre without loosing clarity and richness of tone. The sinfonia are inventively integrated into the dramatic action, replicating the music’s mood and energy with dramatic gestures: flailing in contorted shapes when discordant or swaying gracefully like pirouetting birds when harmonious. Alongside the grand sense of scale, there is wonderful attention to detail.

But if you look beyond the dazzling gleam of its music and spectacle (which, admittedly, is hard to do), Amadeus’ storyline is found wanting. There really isn’t much more to the plot other than Salieri’s basic motive of jealousy and revenge. Consequently the play begins to tire. Despite the many exhaustive speeches that litter the second half, we don’t gain any greater insight into Salieri’s mind beyond the blatantly obvious fact he is envious of Mozart’s talent and pissed off with God. His speeches are too repetitive and theatrically overblown to carry any real weight or emotion.

Following his portrayal of Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom earlier in the spring, Lucian Msamati  provides The National with another fine performance, however both Amadeus and Msamati’s previous play suffer from a similar frustration. While there is so much musical talent on offer, it is not showcased enough. The excerpts from Mozart’s operas, concertos and requiems are always tantalisingly cut short. Meanwhile Salieri’s simultaneous commentaries work where he describes the details of the composition such as the function of different instruments and their interaction, but are otherwise unnecessary and aggravating. We do not want to hear him, especially when he isn’t saying anything particularly interesting that we haven’t heard before.

Amadeus is at its best when speculation over Mozart’s character and his relationship with Salieri is silenced, and his music is heard. Schaffer’s original script is actually quite thin, and without the resources and talent available to The National, it would be exposed.


Amadeus runs at The National until January 26. Featured image: What’s On Stage.

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Sam Taylor