“It would make angels mourn”
Perhaps fittingly, on an evening when beautiful tribute was paid to the late Howard Davies, whose invaluable contribution to the National Theatre (36 productions over 28 years) will sorely be missed, there’s a sense of the passing of the guard with director Michael Longhurst making his main stage debut in the South Bank venue. Longhurst has been establishing himself quite the reputation (Constellations and Linda at the Royal Court, Carmen Disruption at the Almeida, A Number at the Nuffield, an extraordinary Winter’s Tale earlier this year, and the brilliant The Blackest Black at the Hampstead, to name just a few) and his graduation here feels entirely earned.
He makes his bow with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, a play that premiered at this very theatre in 1979 (another sad loss, as Shaffer passed away this summer) and with the enviable resources to hand here, mounts an excellent production. The play depicts a largely fictionalised version of the intertwined lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri and their rival careers, and the Southbank Sinfonia are on hand to provide live orchestral accompaniment. So that when The Marriage of Figaro is premiered, we get an excerpt; when people read the sheet music, we don’t have to imagine the notes of the page, we hear them out loud.
And though the play takes place in the late eighteenth century Viennese court, the Sinfonia remain in modern dress, a constant reminder of the timelessness of Mozart’s music, how it has endured, thrived even. This is best displayed in a breathtaking sequence that closes the first half, Longhurst at his bravura best. Using the full space of the Olivier, designer Chloe Lamford sweeps a platform forwards, backlit with increasingly powerful floodlights from Jon Clark, on which period-dressed singers contrast with contemporary musicians as they give a soaring rendition of part of the Requiem. Then the lights drop, the musical ecstacy pauses and Lucian Msamati’s Salieri gives an excoriating speech as he’s utterly consumed by jealousy – it’s an extraordinary theatrical moment.
Msamati (following on from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in what must be close to a career-best year for him) is simply superb as the Machiavellian manipulator who can’t believe God has forsaken him for another, his silky asides to the audience rich with biting comedy, his outrage never less than bitterly heartfelt. Adam Gillen is a brattish vision in baby pink Doc Martens along with his finery, a magnificently awesome display of genius-wrapped arrogance that clearly irritates the court as much as his music inspires, and there’s crucial work too from Karla Crome as Mozart’s lover, then wife Constanze, a smaller but no less significant role of real heart.
The biographical inaccuracies, such as they are, may still frustrate some but as a psychological study of jealousy, and how we – both as society and individuals – treat those considered to possess genius, Amadeus is a powerful play indeed and this is undoubtedly a stunning production thereof. We’re also amusingly often reminded of the dangers of making judgments – the court often scoffs at Mozart’s work, some people may have previously been unimpressed by this play – but I’m throwing my hat in with this, a resounding success for a cast and creative team at the top of their game, and the perfect tribute to Shaffer.