When the obscenely young Mozart, with rebellion in his heart and the heavens in his soul, exploded onto the world stage in 18th-century Vienna, classical music would never be the same again. You can't quite argue that Michael Longhurst's National Theatre revival of Peter Shaffer's play – which premiered at this very same theatre nearly 30 years ago – has quite the same revolutionary impact. Yet this fabulous 2016 production, back for another run on the Olivier (and a rare success on this stage for the National's artistic director Rufus Norris) is an aural and visual assault – a ravishing fusion of music and drama that captures something of the sublime beauty and restless, zingingly alive energy that the upstart Mozart launched upon the thoroughly unprepared, starchy, imperial Austrian court.
Shaffer's drama has Shakespearean undertones – a titanic tragedy of egos in which Salieri, the devout chief composer who never lets his private knowledge of his mediocre abilities undermine his faith in his divine appointment, is consumed with envy over the transcendent talent of the young Mozart. That Mozart, in Adam Gillen's exhausting performance, should be no kowtowing apprentice but a punky, puerile, priapic brat in bleached blond hair and knickerbockers who looks up women's skirts and blows raspberries at the Emperor with a juvenile primitivism, in shocking contrast to his fully formed talent, adds intolerable insult to grievous injury. That God should have blessed this antic, snotty-nosed delinquent over him! In determining to destroy Mozart, Salieri signs his own spiritual death warrant. What makes the play so terrible to watch is that, from the outset, and as Lucian Msamati's thrillingly articulate performance makes abundantly clear, he knows what he has done.
There are three massive performances in Longhurst's production – Gillen's Mozart, the formidable Msamati and the Southbank Sinfonia who are on stage all the time. Their fragmented renditions of Mozart's music, fully integrated into the production, are a source of great pleasure for the audience but an exquisite torment for Salieri. Msamati's Salieri, so smooth at court, so good at ensuring Mozart's every attempt to secure a financially rewarding footing with the Emperor are foiled, so masterful at ensuring the gullible Mozart doesn't suspect a thing, and yet this man is driven almost to madness by this perfect music, which seems to play from the stars themselves, wherever he goes. There is a wonderful moment when the orchestra, clad in black, seems to advance upon him like avenging spirits, and then retreat, as he lies prostrate and in despair, one of Mozart's manuscripts scattered like leaves all around him.
That the play is framed as a deathbed confession from Salieri ensures what we see and hear is invariably through the distorting prism of Salieri's mind. His anguished battle with a god who in his mind has betrayed him is partly what, to his ears, makes Mozart's music correspondingly sound divine. Longhurst wrests a thrilling theatrical spectacle from this existential crisis, and proves so imaginative at dramatising Mozart's music for the stage you hope he has plans to turn to directing opera. In the meantime we have this. Tremendous.