The National Theatre’s 2018 production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus hits a lot of the right notes. By all means, it’s a captivating production, succeeding in celebrating Mozart’s life and music. Its venue, costumes, and music (provided by Southbank Sinfonia) give the show a grandeur that makes it truly memorable. This particular production also manages to emphasise many of the comedic moments in this otherwise tragic work. However, one particular casting choice upsets the balance of an otherwise brilliant show.
This classic story of Amadeus’s life borrows some elements of truth with a decadent aesthetic and a powerful imagination. For example, Salieri really did claim that he killed Mozart, while suffering from mental health issues in a hospital in Vienna. While this claim is likely to be untrue, Shaffer is not the first to adapt this apocryphal tale, as Pushkin did many years before him. In both works, it is the beauty of Mozart’s music that drives Salieri mad with jealousy. However, Shaffer provides a particularly insightful understanding of Salieri’s character when he laments he is being punished by God, as the sole person able to recognise Mozart’s brilliance, while winning the fickle, short-lasting praise of his contemporaries, who are unfit to judge.
Lucian Msamati gives a fantastic performance as the lead role, Salieri, truly holding the show together. Whether you know him as Salladhor Saan in Game of Thrones, or as a fascinating interpretation of Iago in the RSC’s 2015 production of Othello, you probably recognise Msamati’s talent for portraying morally grey characters. In this production, he plays Salieri with a ferocity, jealousy, charisma, and sardonic wit that contrasts heavily with the snivelling, obsequious Salieri of L.A. Theatre Works’ production or the 1984 film. While he never reaches the levels of vulnerability of either of those other productions, his more aggressive performance makes for a strong villain you can’t help but empathise with in his sheer determination. In his direct addresses to the audience, Msamati creates a surprising amount of humour, through references to indulgences of food or his private prayer as he attempts to remain virtuous, despite various carnal temptations. In fact, the audience feels complicit by laughing at his villainous barbs. Some critics might point out that the character portrayal is a tad too similar to his interpretation of Iago. While there is some truth to this, the characters are both devious, jealous, and cunning men who attempt to undermine people they perceive as their superiors.
Another notable performance is given by Karla Crome (of Misfits fame) as Constanze, Mozart’s ‘common’ or low-born wife, capturing the complexity of this character, who’s also punished, sometimes vicariously, through Salieri. One of the most powerful and menacing moments is when she’s propositioned by him; though Salieri doesn’t proceed with his plan to exchange the career promotion of her husband for sexual congress, there’s no doubt the moment is heightened by the contemporary discourse surrounding Me Too. Crome consistently demonstrates the pressures her character experiences, while retaining an outward resilience. Also, her interactions with Mozart’s character succinctly display the changing ebbs of their relationship with authenticity.
Adam Gillen’s performance as Amadeus Mozart is where this play falters. Rather than the eccentric genius of other productions, Gillen interprets him as a pantomime character, or a farcical mad scientist on way too much caffeine. When he isn’t running around the stage screaming out his lines, he’s out of breath, gesticulating, making rude hand gestures or pretending a piece of wood is his phallus. At one point, this hyperactive cardboard cut-out character puts his finger under his nose and gives a Nazi salute when mocking the emperor. Not only is his character lacking any subtlety, nuance, or depth, he’s also just in plain bad taste. More of a clown than a three-dimensional character. Eventually, you actually start routing for Salieri and hoping for Amadeus’s downfall, which is surely not the desired effect Shaffer’s greatest tragedy is trying to convey.
However, to end on a more positive note, the Southbank Sinfonia are brilliant. We get to see some standout moments from Mozart’s greatest operas, vaudevilles, comedies, and unfinished requiem mass. These are all handled with such panache, you could be forgiven for forgetting you were watching this on a laptop screen in a living room, rather than in front of these wonderful performers, who do justice to Mozart’s music and lyrics, in both Italian and German.
Overall, a brilliant production with one annoying example of miscasting. If you have previously enjoyed the film, text, or other productions, expect a slightly more darkly-comic interpretation than you are used to. I would still highly recommend watching it when you get the opportunity. However, don’t expect to empathise quite so easily with Mozart, as he’s overshadowed by an incredibly powerful Salieri.