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Embittered Symphony

by Peter Shaffer
directed by Michael Longhurst
National Theatre

“If everybody owes God a death,” wrote Anthony Burgess, “then the hard-working artist owes fate an occasional physical or mental breakdown: he cannot build so many new worlds without damaging his own fabric.” Amadeus explores the symbiotic breakdown of two such artists: composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play is a masterwork of author Peter Shaffer, who passed away this June at the age of 90. It is a great pity he could not see Michael Longhurst’s production do it vibrant justice, with a triumphant turn from NT veteran Lucian Msamati as Salieri.


The play in a sense is a complex murder mystery – albeit one where the murderer confesses as the curtain goes up. 1825, and a dying Salieri cries out across the streets of Vienna, begging Mozart’s mercy for his part in his death. Salieri-as-narrator leads us back four decades to Mozart’s arrival at the Viennese court, the once child prodigy now an obscene curiosity. Salieri, devout and diligent, cannot reconcile the infantile Mozart with the rapturous music he composes off the cuff. “It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God,” Salieri says, and before long his own God-given talents have become torturous to him. So begins his refutation of God (“He gave me that longing…and then made me mute”) and a declaration of war, proposing Mozart himself as the battleground. The play casts us as collaborators as he goes about sabotaging the young composer’s life – love, career, reputation and financial health – finally bringing us home to his original confession and the darkly clever twist it provides.


Chloe Lamford’s set is a stripped-back wonderland of 2D and 3D columns, curtains, cherubs and one very sturdy piano. Its rehearsal-room nature rallies the whole company as they seamlessly colour the Vienna that Salieri sketches out. The costumes offer a dazzling contrast between old world and new, between the fusty and irreverent – set against the court’s bland period dress are the Mozarts’ outlandish punk-wear: candyfloss pink, nuclear yellow, savage peppermint stripes. It’s a feast of a design that, like the play, illuminates by way of selective gloom.


Longhurst’s use of the Southbank Sinfonia is a particular masterstroke. The orchestra flood the stage with dynamism and versatility, from their first parade introducing each instrument to their wild masquerades and nightmarish requiems. Their music is enhanced by brilliant jolts of the contemporary, courtesy of music director Simon Slater.


The cast are excellent, from Geoffrey Beevers’ droll Baron Van Swieten to Karla Crome’s playful, soulful Constanze. Her coarse charm and wily pragmatism offers a nice reprieve from the music-mad composers. Meanwhile Adam Gillen gives us a maniacally frenetic and often hilarious Mozart. His sneering speech cracks every now and then to reveal the real boy beneath, never more moving than in his meditation on the composer’s true purpose: “I bet you that's how God hears the world: millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us! That's our job…to turn the audience into God.”

But it is Msamati’s Salieri, our host, our villain, our partner-in-crime, that is maestro here. His soaring voice is our siren song, fruity and sardonic one moment, raw and guilt-ravaged the next. Pitch-perfect comic asides to the audience are delightfully bitchy (“I have been listening to the cats in the courtyard. They are all singing Rossini”), while his gluttonous addiction to crema di mascarpone and nipples of Venus adds a dollop of earthiness to the ethereal. It takes colossal charisma to win sympathy as a man methodically destroying another, but Msamati is the man for the job. Flipping through Mozart’s compositions, he embodies a man torn between excruciating envy and surrender to the sublime. And who hasn’t at times compared and despaired? Most of us in our darker hours have raged against the fickleness of fate. By the play’s end, Shaffer offers an answer of sorts. Everyone tastes from both sides of the cup. All suffering is relative.

Though the composers’ final confrontation doesn’t quite hit the high note, Fleur de Bray, as the Queen of the Night in a stunningly imagined premiere of The Magic Flute, most certainly does. Mozart’s decline – or ascension – into music hall popularity exhibits an artist that was constantly evolving, even as he spiralled into madness. And this highlights why this production works so well. It taps into our fear of the future, of those hot on our heels, and our primitive temptation to keep them down. Amadeus reminds us that we would all do well to nourish the future, lest we come to regret it on our deathbeds.

Rowan Munro


photos | ©Marc Brenner

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