It is an irony, and surely a knowing one, that a play about mediocrity such as Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus should be so superlative. Michael Longhurst’s production of the play at the National Theatre is the most spectacular, enjoyable and life-affirming piece of theatre I have seen in some time. It is also courageous, in light of recent cuts to arts funding, to see a production argue so forcefully for the unique value and enduring relevance of theatre in contemporary society.
The scene is late eighteenth-century Vienna, and the narrative opens with the arrival of the titular prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen), to the city. It is not Mozart, however, but his jealous rival Salieri (Lucian Msamati) who is the audience’s protagonist and guide, and the story is told in flashback from his supposed deathbed. Longhurst’s direction is particularly ingenious here: the stage comes to represent, not the realistic topography of fin-de-siècle Vienna, but rather the cavernous, changeable expanse of Salieri’s memory, with Msamati a constant presence, preening centre stage or cackling, hidden, in his high-backed chair, like an effete Bond villain.
It is Msamati who anchors this ambitious production, and amongst the veritable embarrassment of riches that Amadeus affords his performance deserves special mention. His Salieri is the charismatic ringleader, the audience’s drily witty confidante amongst the excesses of the Viennese court; but he is also petty, venal, occasionally loathsome (the scene in which he makes advances on Mozart’s wife, empathetically played by Adelle Leonce) and ultimately, in the final scene, absurd. The fact that Msamati achieves this seamless character arc while never leaving the stage speaks volumes about his exemplary talents. At one point, upon asking the audience if he had really changed that much since the play’s beginning, a punter replied with the wonderfully equivocal ‘a bit’; which, really, says it all.
If Msamati’s expertly measured performance gives Amadeus its relatable human detail, then Adam Gillen’s Mozart suggests the exact opposite: the guilty pleasure of absurd overacting. This is a compliment; Shaffer’s Mozart is a ridiculous figure, and Gillen’s performance is a masterclass in petulance, as he runs around the stage, spitting and shrieking. It must take genius to be this irritating. But Gillen can also handle Mozart’s final, moving insanity, and if his character arc is less subtle than Msamati’s, it is every bit as affecting.
Special mention should also be made for Matthew Spencer’s performance as the mincingly imbecilic Joseph II, who delivers many of the play’s funniest lines. Indeed, one of the best things about Amadeus is its conviviality; while handling serious themes, it never gets bugged down in turgid psychological realism, and relief is always at hand thanks to the Southbank Sinfonia, an onstage presence as nimble and pervasive as Msamati who ensure Amadeus is aurally as well as dramatically rich.
By ensuring this diversity of entertainments coexist, often for comic or dramatic effect, on the same stage, Michael Longhurst’s production of Amadeus makes a powerful case for the vital uniqueness of theatre as an art form. And, for all the extravagant period detail, Amadeus feels strikingly relevant; it features a commendably diverse cast, and the play’s themes of mediocrity, and of fame as a kind of immortality, are arguably more pertinent now than when Shaffer first penned them in 1979. I implore you to go and see it while you can, as I have a feeling posterity will be talking about this one for a long time to come.