National Theatre at home: a comment on Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’

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A highly fictionalised account of the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, ‘Amadeus’ is rich in both a musical and visual sense. Directed by Michael Longhurst, this 2017 production is the final show streamed free of charge by the National Theatre, bringing an end to their series of lockdown entertainments. It is however, not one to be missed. Featuring a diverse cast of eccentric characters, it explores the music of the Enlightenment era in a creative way, with many recognisable compositions dotted throughout.

The play opens in darkness to mutters of ‘Salieri’, progressing into frantic speculation that is eventually interrupted by the composer’s cry of ‘Mozart’. Throughout the entire production, lighting is cleverly used to exaggerate moments of tension and despair, most effectively in the spotlighted laments of the two key composers. Notable mention must also be given to members of the orchestra, who have a huge role in shaping the musical quality of the play, bringing life to many of Mozart’s compositions. This performance is furthered by the orchestra’s active involvement in the dramatic action, an amusing example being their mimicking of Salieri gorging on a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Stage space is also maximised, allowing for effortless transitions between scenes aided by a detailed set design.

Lucian Msamati does an excellent job in his presentation of Salieri, challenging the usual conception of him as a villain.

Mozart, played by Adam Gillen, is an animated, explicit, and often irritating character, who boasts an embarrassingly child-like attitude. Initially, Mozart’s shrill voice and exaggerated nature appears to serve little more than to give the audience a headache, but, as the plot progresses, further layers of his character are unveiled, allowing for a unique and memorable characterisation of the famous composer. This eccentric performance is made even more vivid by costume design, which sees Mozart sporting quirky and flamboyant outfits. Once dressed in bright dramatic colours, he eventually appears poverty-stricken in his new attire, standing out like a sore thumb against the elaborately dressed Salieri. These wardrobe choices also add a comedic effect, with Mozart rudely labelling Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg as a ‘toad’ for wearing all green.

In contrast, Salieri is much more sombre in attitude, cracking the occasional joke but otherwise appearing to be solely set on achieving fame and musical glory. Ruthless in nature, it is his jealousy which fuels the plot, as we come to learn the tragic consequences of a once-playful rivalry. Lucian Msamati does an excellent job in his presentation of Salieri, challenging the usual conception of him as a villain. Notably, the casting is blind, yet Msamati has commented on the universality of the human experience, noting that ‘I want you to see my colour’. Representation, as always, is very important, and it is therefore interesting that racial inclusivity acts almost as a critique of a past status quo.

A playful tribute to Mozart’s legacy.

Written by Peter Shaffer, the dialogue is witty and entertaining, with Mozart making an array of crude jokes throughout, much to the horror of those around him. This low comedy detracts from the seriousness of the play, but, as Mozart himself stresses, he does not want to be serious. He does, however, want his music to be taken seriously, and it is the failure of this goal that sees his downfall within Viennese society. Equally as comedic, Karla Crome plays Mozart’s wife, a lively presence with a somewhat ill-fitting accent. Following her husband around like an obedient dog, there are moments of conflict as her feisty nature comes in to play.

The incorporation of opera into the action itself is done especially well, and I found myself appreciating the moments of singing and dancing. Visually, this was a treat, as eccentric pieces of fashion contrasted nicely with the black-clad orchestra. It is, however, the balance between the various art forms which allows for such an expressive and easy to follow play. A playful tribute to Mozart’s legacy, ‘Amadeus’ is the perfect watch to round up the National Theatre’s free screenings, illustrating the diversity of the theatre experience itself.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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