Why do good things happen to terrible people? Who among us has not balked at the happiness and success of someone we consider to be objectively odious, absolutely awful? In the late Peter Shaffer’s classic 1979 play, the virtuoso composer Mozart’s very name – ‘Amadeus’, “beloved by God” – is an affront to the Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri. Whilst Salieri is assiduously virtuous, having bargained with God to be so in exchange for musical fame, Mozart is his opposite: selfish, infantile, and rude. Yet it is Mozart who is able to compose with seemingly divine inspiration, setting down fully formed masterpieces on paper with effortless ease even as he cheats and curses and makes a general nuisance of himself. In contrast, Salieri’s compositions, though celebrated at Court, are pedestrian. He, by his own admission is cursed only to be “a pair of ears” – alone able to recognise true greatness in Mozart but never able match it. This he considers a personal betrayal by the Divine Creator, and thus pits himself against his God, vowing to silence Mozart as vengeance.
The play begins as, crippled with guilt in his dying hours, Salieri conjures up the audience as the “ghosts of the future”, and confesses his sins, demanding absolution for his plots against Mozart. The years roll back as Lucian Msamati’s Salieri rises slowly from his wheelchair and guides us through the backstabbing politics of 18th century Vienna. Msamati gives an arresting performance – at times he addresses the audience directly, elsewhere offering commentary of his inner thoughts as his castmates stand in tableau around him or the orchestra, replete with 20 members of the Southbank Sinfonia, strike up. He is a commanding presence on stage, his voice thundering in rebuke to God, able to make the audience hang on the edge of their seats with a sharp remark. His Salieri cuts a tragic figure, a dignified man brought low – though not in material success – by caustic jealousy. Adam Gillen’s Mozart offers a stark counterpoint: crass and insufferable, in the first act the young Wolfgang is irritatingly puerile, and Salieri’s simmering resentment seems entirely logical. Yet as the play progresses, Gillen is able to suffuse his characterisation with pathos; his Mozart matures and is tempered by the misfortunes that come his way. It is not always a nuanced performance – far from it – but is an ultimately affectionate portrayal of a not altogether likeable character.
Adelle Leonce, as Mozart’s wife, Constanze Weber, is at once defiant and vulnerable, whilst Matthew Spencer brings plenty of comic relief to his role as Joseph II, the Hapsburg Emperor. Alexandra Mathie, Hugh Sachs, and Christopher Godwin all give fantastic performances as two imperious barons of the Court, and the Director of the Opera respectively.
In a production that hardly ever puts a foot wrong, one of the undeniable stars is Matthew Longhurst’s direction. Shaffer’s script demands a theatrical spectacle, and Longhurst delivers. Remarkably, Longhurst opts to make the orchestra an integral part of the on-stage performance; it is a bold choice but one that feels necessary. After all, this is a play to which music is inextricably linked. The violinists, flautists and bassoonists of the Sinfonia, together with six singers, are not resigned to the orchestra pit, but move around the stage, reacting to the actors around them. When Salieri describes his childhood deal with God, the orchestra raise their hands in silent prayer, but they are not simply a reflection of Salieri’s thoughts – when he asks them to play an excerpt from his sub-par opera The Stolen Bucket the orchestra decline, to great comedic effect.
The inclusion of the orchestra in this startlingly inventive manner, paired with the brilliant lighting, designed by Jon Clark, creates a sumptuously cinematic experience. In one tremendous scene towards the end of the first act we watch as Salieri, upon opening a folio of Mozart’s finest compositions, is overcome. Slight modulations of lighting pitch us from reality to the depths of Salieri’s tortured mind. At first there is a slow, urgent thrum of the bassoons and trumpet, and the vestiges of the composer’s comfortable front room are dragged off into the wings, Salieri is alone on an empty stage with nothing but the music, as the assembled orchestra, standing on a an elevated stage, play Mass in C Minor. Then slowly the clarinet and violins join in on the higher notes, and as the majesty of music dawns on Salieri, an imagined Mozart joins the orchestra to conduct them in a frenzy of movement, and Fleur de Bray’s crystal clear soprano rises above the instruments in a haunting Kyrie. Little by little, the stage on which the music is being played advances towards Salieri, and great beams of light, growing ever brighter, shine out towards the audience, casting the orchestra in silhouette. Eventually, with a great crash of percussion, Salieri, in both awe and despair, sinks to his knees. We in the audience cannot help but be moved.
This revival is nothing short of an epic undertaking. It may be the story of the self-proclaimed patron saint of mediocrity but Shaffer’s brilliance is plain to see. Shaffer is considered one of the best British playwrights of the 20th century. There is no stronger evidence for this than Amadeus.
Where? National Theatre When? Until 24th April How Much? From £15