This production is a triumphant success on every level, a revival of Peter Shaffer's classic play that subtly brings it into the modern era without violating its 18th century period context. The acting is superb, and so is the music and the design. Above all, it is a fantastic achievement for Michael Longhurst the young director in his first production in the Olivier theatre.
The Olivier stage, vast and unforgiving, is a challenge for any director, but especially for one whose reputation as a rising star in British theatre has been won in far smaller spaces such as the Royal Court and the Almeida. Even Sir Richard Eyre confessed in his memoir of his time running the National that the theatre's biggest stage was a hard nut to crack. Well, Longhurst has certainly cracked it in superb fashion. I don't think I have every seen a production in the Olivier that made such good use of the space to create a seamless and flexible zone of theatrical magic.
One of the pitfalls for directors in the Olivier and the slightly smaller Lyttelton is the temptation to start with an ambitious conceptual stage design that leaves little room for improvisation and movement, and ends up by cramping the style of the actors. Last year's As You Like It was a good example. But Longhurst and his designer Chloe Lamford avoid this with a largely abstract and highly flexible design that bridges the gap between the 18th and 21st centuries.
Longhurst's masterstroke is to put the orchestra (the Southbank Sinfonia) on stage in modern dress and to use the Venticelli (also in modern dress) to link them to the action of the play, where the actors are in period costume. Often I get irritated by the blurring of ancient and modern in historical drama, which can be a way for directors to have their cake and eat it. But here the effect is to add a whole new dimension to Shaffer's play, bringing it into the modern world.
The first time I saw Amadeus was in the 1990s with David Suchet as Salieri and Michael Sheen as Mozart at the Old Vic. To be honest, I can't remember too much about it, but I have a much better recollection of the Chichester Festival Theatre production two years ago with Rupert Everett and Joshua McGuire. It was excellent, but Longhurst's reinvention of the play and use of live music explores new possibilities in Shaffer's work and lifts it to a new level.
To call this a 'revival' is to understate the director's achievement in blending Shaffer's text, which is crammed with prescriptive stage directions, with his original musical choices, which shift at times into new dissonant patterns and rhythms created by composer and music director Simon Slater. There's an unnerving moment when the familiar tunes of The Magic Flute become distorted. Meanwhile the design suddenly changes too, with vulgar modernistic costumes suggesting that Mozart's mind is suffering just as much as his body. But Longhurst doesn't pile it on ad nauseam -- he knows when to stop.
Adam Gillen, like Tom Hulce in the famous film version, plays Mozart just as Shaffer wrote him -- a potty-mouthed cackling genius, a character who cannot control his limbs or his mouth, who appears on the verge of Tourette's syndrome. In the closing scenes Mozart approaches his own death reaching out in despair to Salieri, the man who has destroyed him, as his only benefactor. It's an unbearable piece of dramatic irony that savages the emotions.
Lucian Msamati is a perfect Salieri, conveying the character's darkness without making him a villain or a hypocrite. In the final scenes, the tenderness he displays towards Mozart seems almost genuine, because his real battle is not with his musical rival but with God. Mozart is in a way just the incidental victim of this struggle. I have seen Msamati many times on stage, but this play reveals his range and depth as an actor. He moves seamlessly beween dialogue with the audience, letting them into his secrets, and his interaction with the other characters, including the trusting Mozart. And there is a range of other excellent performances, including Karla Crome as Mozart's wife Constanze and Tom Edden as the jovial monarch Joseph II.
This show displays the vast resources of the National Theatre to good effect, and is another tribute to the surefooted artistic choices of artistic director Rufus Norris, who is filling the giant shoes of his predecessor Nick Hytner in a way that many would have considered impossible. For Msamati and for Longhurst, I feel the Olivier awards are beckoning.