Amadeus, streamed as part of the National Theatre At Home series, allowed viewers to stream Michael Longhurt’s revival of playwright Peter Shaffer’s story of genius, ambition and jealousy directly into their homes.
The protagonist and narrator is Salieri; composer and rival of Mozart. We learn, at the beginning of the play, that he is suspecte of poisoning his enemy in Vienna.
Salieri’s struggle to reconcile his ambition for fame, and disgust at Mozart’s puerile and childish nature, is ever at odds with bitterness over the latter’s genius and distress that God has abandoned him. His only privilege, he mourns, “is to be the sole man alive in this time” who can recognise Mozart’s incredible gifts. He conspires to destroy him and his legacy as he turns against God.
Lucian Msamati’s stunning performance of Salieri brings this conflict to the fore. He is marvellously composed at court as he seeks favour and acts the dutiful subject. In private, though his anguish is palpable, he beats himself and moves fitfully across the stage. Received with more mixed reactions at the time of the original performance, in 2016, Adam Gillen’s Mozart is sublimely infantile. Immensely irritating to watch, as he foolishly insults one after another of the characters, labelling Salieri a “musical idiot”, Gillen perfectly captures what Shaffer’s intent for the character.
Perhaps one of the more ambitious choices of the National Theatre At Home series, Longhurt’s version, originally performed in 2016, was striking in its integration of the orchestra into the drama. The usual wall between the musicians and actors is broken down as they bow to Kapellmeister Bonno, or refuse Salieri’s request to play some of his music.
In an interview, Msamati said that he felt this technique boosted the power of the actors, an “orgy of artistic love”, in which the actors were moved by the musicians and the musicians moved by them in turn. It’s an interesting idea, and indeed while one might think this could detract from a performance when viewed on a screen, it actually draws the audience in further, enabling us to empathise with Salieri’s feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the music and talent of his rival.
Of course, this is not the first time Shaffer’s play has been shown on screen – the 1980 film version did a marvellous job of showing the dark rivalry and ridiculousness of the feud. It would not be a stretch to say, however, that in projecting a stage performance directly onto the screen, this bold run of Amadeus only gains in power four years on from its original showing.
Words by Lottie Hayton.
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