Sunday, November 13, 2016

AMADEUS at the National Theatre - music to die for...

Peter Shaffer died four months before the opening of this revival of his 1979 masterpiece AMADEUS, I am sure he would have been thrilled to see it back on the National Theatre's mainstage 37 years later.  Sadly that production was before I got the theatre bug in that same theatre three years later with GUYS AND DOLLS, I would loved to have seen it as my dear friend John Normington played the fussy Emperor Joseph II.  As usual, I am used to seeing ghosts walk the Olivier stage....

I first saw AMADEUS on stage in 2014 in a revival at Chichester with a masterful, charismatic lead performance from Rupert Everett as Salieri, the 18th Century composer who found himself usurped in popularity by the young genius Mozart and schemes to ruin him.  Shaffer has a reclusive and dying Salieri narrate the story; he has made sure that all Vienna is awash with the rumours that he murdered Mozart but takes us back to their first meeting and the start of his enmity.

What angers Salieri is that God is seemingly mocking him; from a young age he dedicated his life to the service of enriching the world and serving God through his music and while it has brought him success he has yet to fully believe that the Lord is truly in his compositions.  He can sense the divine in Mozart's work but is appalled that the composer is a dissolute and obnoxious person.  Salieri decides to avenge himself on his uncaring God by seeking to destroy his chosen one.

The script bristles with Peter Shaffer's distinctive literary wit and phrasing but I felt that language did not seem to be uppermost in director Michael Longhurst's three hour production.  Once again we have a director who seems to follow the Emma Rice school of directing: namely distrust the words and go for the sensation - the choreographed movement, the modern anachronisms, the minimalist standing set, the gender and race-blind casting, the vague air of alienation theory.  It all smacks of attempts to jazz up the form but all one is left with are tropes, no substance.

As usual what gets lost in this approach is any genuine emotion in the piece - you watch the actors going through the motions but nothing they ever do seems to connect, or even attempt to.  I suspect it would be seen as old school to do that but if you are spending three hours staring at a production, something needs to have an effect surely.

Longhurst has the potentially inspiring idea of using the 21-strong Southbank Sinfonia acting as supernumeraries and also to create choreographed movement at times - all waving or pulsing to a certain strain of music.  I have to admit it did make for some memorable moments but that was what they were - moments.  At other times all you had were 21 people staring gormlessly about themselves and into the auditorium.

Despite the raves he has received from the critics I found Lucian Msamati ultimately wearying as Salieri; it's not entirely his fault, by the end of the play you do rather wish that Shaffer would speed up his musing on musical history and for the most part Msamati was strong enough to lead the production and give it a central focus, but his speech pattern did not really suit the writing and it became hectoring rather than insinuating.  Rupert Everett gave a much more nuanced performance at Chichester and as such made the character more resonant.  One applauds Msamati for the endurance but not the actual performance.

Adam Gillen as Mozart and Karla Crome as his wife Constanze also have the same affliction - both end the play as they started it; Gillen braying and whinnying and Crome like an 18th century character from Eastenders.  Both Amadeus and Constanze age ten years during the play as they dwindle into poverty but you really would have no idea from their performances.

Yes Gillen was supposed to be an annoying twat but in his final scene, dying while trying to finish his own requiem, he was just as squeaky and punchable.  Joshua Maguire played Amadeus in the Chichester production and at least varied the tone, finally winning some sympathy for the character.

One of the actors did however make a splash; Tom Edden - last seen gurning about in dirty underwear in the woeful DOCTOR FAUSTUS - was delightful as the petulant Emperor Joseph II.  Two actors who were good in the previous Olivier production THE THREEPENNY OPERA here play Salieri's gossiping Venticelli and gave such jarringly amateur performances that they shall remain nameless.

Chloe Lamford's production design managed to be both sparse and cluttered at the same time, mainly consisting of a movable stepped dais and projected gauze's and scrims while Jon Clark's lighting design did all the heavy lifting in setting moods and place.  However, there was no denying the excellent musical direction of Simon Slater who made the classical music sound wonderfully bravura.

The production is sold out until February but will continue in the repertoire further into 2017 and it will, of course, be screened in cinemas as part of the NT Live events.

Back to that original National Theatre production... AMADEUS won the Evening Standard award for Best New Play and Paul Scofield was filmed for the television coverage in the scene where Salieri hears Mozart's music for the first time; it's an acting masterclass in microcosm and is thrilling to watch and hear:

No comments: