Review: AMADEUS from National Theatre Live

by Lynn on July 17, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Friday, July 17, 2020. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. AMADEUS on National Theatre Live until July 23, 2020. Streaming for free.

This is the script of the recorded review on July 17.

Good Friday morning, it’s theatre fix time with me, Lynn Slotkin, your theatre critic and passionate playgoer.

I’m reviewing the National Theatre Live streamed production of AMADEUS  by Peter Shaffer.

It played in London, England at the National Theatre a few years ago, and it’s live streaming now as part of their NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE series. It began yesterday (July 16) and runs until Thursday, July 23.

Peter Shaffer’s play is set in Vienna, November 1823 and in flashbacks from 1781-1791.

Antonio Salieri is dying. In his day he was the top composer, music maven in Vienna in the court of Joseph II, the Emperor of Austria. He was celebrated, promoted, honoured and respected.

On this last night of his life, he mumbles for forgiveness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who died 32 years before. Salieri in his dying crazed mind confesses that he killed Mozart.

Salieri’s reputation is such that everybody is talking and gossiping about this confession.

The play then flashes back to the decade of 1781-1791.

At that time Salieri was a robust, successful man who asked God to make him a composer and to be famous for it. In return Salieri, would serve mankind and devote himself to serving God. Salieri thrived and prospered in the court of the Emperor as the court composer. And then he met this odious, man-child named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his life changed. Salieri realized that for all his piety to serve God with his music etc. next to Mozart, he was a mediocrity.

Mozart, this hideously rude, immature man, effortlessly produced music that was touched by God and Salieri was livid at what he perceived was God’s betrayal of him.   He vowed to take revenge with no less an opponent than God. He would get even by destroying Mozart all the while seemingly to champion him.

Peter Shaffer’s play is a fascinating look at the creative process of making art in the form of music; the politics of the court of an Emperor even in matters of music; the difference between a genius like Mozart who was effortless in his creation of music and the sham of the mediocrity that was Salieri.

Perhaps the play is called Amadeus rather than Mozart, because it’s an unexpected look at a man we usually know as a genius.

It’s also a look at a playwright—Peter Shaffer—who was at the top of his playwriting game in fashioning an imaginary scenario about two real people.

The production is directed by Michael Longhurst and it is both simple and grandly theatrical. Set pieces are rolled on and off the stage with ease and create the suggestion of the grand surroundings. Kudos to designer Chloe Lamford. The furnishings look rich and antique. The costumes are sumptuous brocades and silks. At every turn we get the sense of the rarified world in which Salieri worked as a matter of course. It also was the world that Mozart aspired to and couldn’t quite be accepted into—of course because Salieri thwarted him at every turn.

An inspired addition to this production is the inclusion of a full orchestra that is also part of the action rather than listening to recorded music, which seems the norm in the other productions I’ve seen. Here the musicians are always on the stage, often interacting with the action, swirling around the stage with their instruments, rather than just sitting firmly in chairs providing the music.

When Salieri reads Mozart’s written music, the orchestra is there to realize the brilliance of the work. Salieri understands it’s exquisite beauty and it causes him real pain because he can’t produce that kind of music and he knows it.

Occasionally the orchestra provides the cacophonous sounds that suggest the mental turmoil of either Salieri or Mozart. That orchestra adds a richness to an already sumptuous production.

Antonio Salieri is played by Lucian Msamati with gravitas, sophistication, elegance and a courtliness that royalty would find impressive, certainly the rather simple-minded Emperor.

Mozart is always a tricky part in this play. The character acts like a man-boy, irreverent, often petulant, immature, rude and impish. The fact that he’s a genius adds to the multi-faceted character.

The reason it’s tricky is that too often the actor playing him tends to overplay all the impetuous aspects and just makes him a one-noted spoiled brat. That’s what we have in the performance of Adam Gillen as Mozart. He shouts the whole part. It is one, long annoying rant with little variation.  I could see the vein in his neck bulge every time he bellowed.

This results in little sympathy, and there has to be some sympathy since we know that Salieri sabotaged him every chance he could. I don’t get the sense that director Michael Longhurst reined in Mr. Gillen since Longhurst had Mozart jumping on furniture, racing around the set, and bellowing.

I think that one noted rant is a mistake. After a while the audience stops listening. Not a good thing.

But I recommend you give this a look because the play is so inventive, the production is beautiful, and Lucian Msamati is compelling as Salieri.

Amadeus streams until July 23 on:

You can check my blog for my other reviews at twitter @slotkinletter

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