Theater Review: Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, at the National Theatre

The National Theatre in London first produced Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1979. It went on to be a huge hit, playing in the West End and on Broadway, and being adapted for the screen by Milos Forman. The National Theatre has revived the play, and I attended it yesterday. This is a tough ticket to get, as the performances are all sold out. My partner and I bought a membership at the National Theatre to be get advance access to tickets, and were able to snag a pair in the fourth row when a number of dates were added early this year.

The National Theatre has made a bold choice by casting Lucian Msamati as Salieri. This black actor, who I saw as Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of Othello – the first time the RSC had cast a black Iago – is an astounding actor. As Iago he was brilliant; as Salieri, he is breathtaking. His stage presence dominates this production, and his performance is powerful and subtle.

Foreground lucian msamati antonio salieri background members of southbank sinfonia image by marc brenner

(Photos by Marc Bremmer for the National Theatre.)

It’s the twilight of Salieri’s life, and he reflects on the past, when he knew Mozart, and was partly responsible for his downfall. “Awestruck by his genius, court composer Antonio Salieri has the power to promote his talent or destroy it. Seized by obsessive jealousy he begins a war with Mozart, with music and, ultimately, with God.”

Salieri dominates the play, and Mozart is present as much in his mind as well as when he is actually on stage. Played by Adam Gillen, Mozart comes off as a spoiled child with Tourette’s, and I found it hard to suspend disbelief, at least until the end, shortly before his death. His over-the-top performance led one reviewer to suggest a resemblance with Harpo Marx, and I think he’s spot on. Gillen goes too far; he’s too crazy, too impulsive, too unbelievable.

Adam gillen wolfgang amadeus mozart

But Msamati is powerful, and the rest of the cast fully in the play, making the overall ensemble excellent. I had trouble with the first half of the play, where the scenes seemed a bit disjointed, and where Mozart’s behavior was too off the wall. But the second part was much better, as it followed a more chronological order as Salieri’s plot to take down the better composer was set in action.

The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre has a very large stage. It’s round, and it can turn (though it doesn’t in this production), and this production takes full advantage of the stage by enlisting 20 musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia, who perform music along with the play. From what I understand, this use of music is new; it was not in the original production, which was more of a play than a spectacle. Together with a chorus and some excellent soloists singing bits from Mozart’s operas, this production of Amadeus comes off as a lush combination of music and theater that is designed to please.

A scene from amadeus centre lucian msamati antonio salieri

It’s hard to not like this production. For me, it’s just the Mozart character that keeps it from being a true classic, but the audience reaction was such – many people giving a standing ovation, something not common in the UK – that it’s clear most people just shrugged that off. This production has been so popular that the National Theatre is brining it back for more performances in 2018 (presumably with the same cast), and I could see this transferring to another theater and playing for many years. It has everything you want in the theater: a strong story, a fine cast, and the music and elaborate staging make it a spectacle to remember. Heck, I’d even consider seeing it again next year…

Note that Amadeus was broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live program, and there will be encore screenings. So if you can’t see it live, you can still see it in cinemas, in the UK and in other countries. Find out more here. Here’s a trailer for the cinema broadcast: