One of my Christmas presents from my wife was tickets to see the current production of the late Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre. After an impatient wait of two months, last night we finally attended.
I have been a fan of Shaffer’s work for many years. During my A-levels our English teacher took us to see Equus at Leeds Playhouse. Seeing the play live reinforced the powerful impression made upon me by the 1977 film. At about the same time I saw the 1969 film version of The royal hunt of the sun, starring Christopher Plummer as Atahualpa. I already had a fascination for the Incas and Shaffer’s stylised representation of their rich and alien culture struck a chord with me. Then, early in 1985, I saw the interminable film version of Amadeus. I’m no great fan of classical opera, although I had seen an amateur production of the Magic Flute with my mum at the local college in Barnsley when I was 15 or 16. If one of the criticisms of Mozart made in the play was that his work featured rather “too many notes”, it was without doubt my complaint about the film, in which the scenes from the various operas went on at unnecessary length (so far as I was concerned). It was overlong and rather dull, I thought.
Nonetheless, I was prepared to give the play a second chance and looked forward to the production at the National. It is impressive in its staging. There is a small orchestra on stage most of the time, providing a dramatic backing track to scenes as well as the excerpts from Mozart’s work, which are paired with Salieri’s envious commentary upon them. The musicians and singers also double up as extras, keeping the stage lively and engaging throughout. You have to compliment some of the musicians for being able to play whilst lying down, whilst moving and whilst dancing and posing.
The set is simple, but is used to great effect. The centre of the stage of the Olivier Theatre rises and lowers into a ‘pit’ and clouds and suns come and go from above. Lucian Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart are both extremely good; the costumes are dazzling- I especially liked Mozart’s Dr Martens- and the whole production maintained a brisk pace without the risk of there being longeurs or “too many notes.”
All in all, then, a great production- as we might anticipate from the National Theatre. A few years ago I saw a very good version of The royal hunt of the sun in the Olivier and in 2015 I saw the Civil War drama Light shining in Buckinghamshire. This was better than both of those.