One of several artistic greats to die in 2016, Peter Shaffer’s association with the National Theatre serves as a reminder of the institution’s nurturing role. Away from the West End, the playwright’s vision, creating ambitious works filled with myth and history, flourished. Returning to the Olivier stage for the first time since a legendary premiere in 1979, this new production of one of his best works, directed by Michael Longhurst, has the energy and originality to qualify as a fitting tribute.
There are plenty of big ideas to be voiced, about art and religion, arising from court composer Antonio Salieri’s battle against the God-given genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Longhurst’s particular skill is to make sure the play’s entertainment value is clearly heard: balancing the drama and humour. Music too, obviously, and also movement, both coming from the onstage presence of the Southbank Sinfonia. The 21 musicians’ interaction with the cast forms a commentary that is visual as well as auditory.
Excellent smaller roles provide a lot of laughs: praise for Tom Edden and Hugh Sachs as, respectively, the emperor Joseph II and the imperious head of the Viennese Opera. But most of the fun comes from an exuberant performance by Adam Gillen in the title role. Joined by Karla Crome as his wife Constanze, who also gives a powerful performance, Gillen has charisma and a clear connection with the audience. Mozart is presented as a spoilt rock star, complete with “vulgar” clothes including pink Dr Marten boots – just one element of Chloe Lamford’s excellent design. This Amadeus is so exaggerated he occasionally irritates, but the portrayal is consistent and makes sense.
If Gillen tips the balance of sympathies from Amadeus to the real lead of Salieri, well, those scales are weighted from the start, affording Lucian Msamati star status. From the opening scene, where he invokes a future audience and the lights in the auditorium rise, he commands attention. A deadpan tone shows comic skills while the awe and grief felt at Mozart’s achievements are convincingly passionate. Msamati has a clear control of Shaffer’s themes and plays them perfectly. Salieri may claim to be the patron saint of mediocrity, but Msamati’s performance is the antonym of that.
Until 18 March 2017
Photos by Marc Brenner