Of rude vessels, mediocrity and gods



“BOO!” The new and the old: Mozart (Adam Gillen) and Salieri (Lucian Msamati). Photograph by Marc Brenner.

THE CURIOUS FLAW in this almost mythic tale of maverick talent, jealousy and the celebration of mediocrity, is how it is hinged on ostensible fact. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus took some fuzzy hearsay around the life and death of 18th century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and ramped it up to levels of popular awareness and discourse to the extent that it became fact in the general perception. Very viably so. You can see this for yourself in the Michael Longhurst interpretation of the work free on youtube until 23 July 2020, on the National Theatre Live at Home channel.

Staged at the Olivier Theatre, it’s a monster of a work, threaded through richly with chords, quotes and allusions to Mozart’s work, that takes a winding path through levity and the sinister in ways that raise goosebumps. Featuring the fabulous Lucian Msamati as the official court composer, Antonio Salieri, 32 years after the death of Mozart, the narrative skirts between over the top Rococo and brashly contemporary. Told in the first person, it is peppered with moments of remorse and cruelty, betrayal and Italian traditional sweetmeats.

Salieri has a conscience in the form of two performers: Sarah Amankwah and the magnificent Hammed Animashaun, who we recently saw in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an interesting directorial device, which you may remember from works such as Zakes Mda’s play Mother of All Eating, where a character is split in two, enabling an inner dialogue. They play with values, insinuate gossip and add to the sense of dirty tale telling in this work, and offering it a speckled mix of evil and sass.

And then there is Adam Gillen, who plays Mozart himself. The role demands a brash and crude youngster, with infantile toilet humour and an inability to respect the structures around him. And Gillen achieves this, but there are times where the boundaries are so pushed, he conveys a sense of someone on the autistic spectrum. Shaffer’s beautiful words sometimes feel anachronistic in his mouth, and the character doesn’t unfold into three-dimensionality at all, not even on his death bed.

Other directorial bits of wisdom are present in the way in which the orchestra bleeds into the action of the work itself. Instruments become containers of character as do actors reveal themselves as skilled operatic performers, rendering the work immensely beautiful in its celebration of all that Mozart had to bring the world.

But as you watch it, and digest the wise and evolved assertions about the politics of opera – or art – and the barbs of jealousy, to say nothing of the danger of fame, you cannot help but wonder if the work would have been so beautifully successful if it was not focused on a character as unequivocally famous as Mozart.

  • Amadeus is written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Michael Longhurst for the Olivier Theatre in London in 2018. It is performed by Sarah Amankwah, Hammed Animashaun, Geoffrey Beevers, Karla Croma, Fleur de Bray, Tom Edden, Nicholas Gerard-Martin, Adam Gillen, Matthew Hargreaves, Michael Lyle, Andrew Macbean, Alexandra Mathie, Lucian Msamati, Eamonn Mulhall, Robyn Allegra Parton, Hugh Sachs, Eleanor Sutton, Wendy Dawn Thompson, Everal A Walsh and Peter Willcock, and features the Southbank Sinfonia, comprising Ruth Elder, Zanete Uskeene, Douglas Harrison, Minsi Yang, Jennifer MacCallum, Dan Shilladay, Patrick Tapio Johnson, Angélique Lihou, Giuseppe Ciraso Calì, Simon Gilliver, Anna Turmeau, Helen Clinton, Oliver Pashley, Kimon Parry, Andrew Watson, Éanna Monaghan, Brendan Parravicini, Laetitia Stott, Sarah Campbell, Beth Higham-Edwards and Matthew Scott. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Chloe Lamford (set design), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound), Carol Lingwood (costumes), Imogen Knight (choreography) and Simon Slater (musical direction) and is directed for screen by Tim Van Someren. It broadcasts for free until 23 July via the National Theatre Live’s youtube channel.

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