Wednesday, 09 November 2016

Amadeus

The NT’s revival of Shaffer’s study of genius and jealousy hits the musical but not the dramatic heights

Written by Georgina Brown


Standing ovations are two a penny in the West End, especially at musicals, few of which deserve them. But they are a rare occurrence at the National Theatre, where audiences tend to be more discriminating, perhaps a tad inhibited or maybe less up for a good time. But at the end of Michael Longhurst’s extravagant revival of Amadeus – Peter Shaffer’s intriguing study of Antonio Salieri, the court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II who may or may not have destroyed the new kid on the block, Mozart, the rival he bitterly envies – the vast majority stood and clapped and hollered. Charming, chatty Gemma Arterton, who was sitting next to me, wolf-whistled with deafening and impressively unladylike elan. Not me. The production is as hugely ambitious as the play itself. But while enjoyable, it was insufficiently enthralling to force me to my feet. I came out loudly singing the praises of Mozart, but merely humming Shaffer’s. Georgina-Brown-colour-176

Peter Hall’s original staging deliberately muted Mozart’s music. Longhurst puts it centre stage and turns up the volume, incorporating a handful of opera singers and 20 young musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia. Musically, the production is pitch-perfect. Verbally, however, it’s less effective. Just as a courtier criticises Mozart’s work for having ‘too many notes’, so Shaffer’s can be accused of having too many words, particularly in Salieri’s persistent quarrel with an uncaring Almighty, which proves wearisome. Moreover, the extensive flashback requires too much static narration.

Lucian Msamati’s Salieri marvelling over Mozart’s music, however, opens one’s ears to it afresh. Salieri may have been a second-rate composer, but Shaffer makes him a first-class critic: ‘A note in music is either right or wrong,’ he says and recalls the moment when he recognised Mozart’s genius. Cue the swelling bassoons and horns of Mozart’s Adagio From the serenade: ‘A single note of the oboe hung there unwavering, piercing me through.’ And so it does all over again. My skin tingled.

Msamati splendidly suggests the seething anger of the second-rater called ‘distinguished by people incapable of distinguishing’, the purgatory of being ‘the patron saint of mediocrity’, a good man turned toxic by jealousy. Adam Gillen has the much tougher task of playing Mozart, who Shaffer portrays as an unpalatably potty-mouthed, raspberry- blowing, overgrown infant. As Mrs Thatcher famously insisted when she saw the play: ‘Mozart was not like that.’ Gillen, in fun punky finery and baby-pink DMs, seems to be channelling a hyperactive Rik Mayall from the Young Ones with added tourette’s and a high-pitched giggle. He neither convinces as genius nor as overstrung neurotic, succeeding only in being irritating and unsympathetic.

The result is a production that hits all the right musical notes but fails to stir one’s soul.

Until 1 February 2017 at the Olivier Theatre, London SE1: 020 -452 3000, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk


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