The Marriage of Figaro runs for only nine performances and is judged by the yawning Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to be overlong. Viennese courtiers dismiss Mozart’s work as self-indulgently ornate, confusingly unconventional, stuffed with “too many notes.” The composer dies in penury, aged 35, leaving the world a deathless legacy of visionary music. Watching this fantasia inspired by a Pushkin playlet and the short life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus, it’s impossible not to be forcibly struck by the tin-eared ignorance of power and authority: the inability of the ruling class to weigh the value of art in any terms beyond the economic, or to celebrate it for more than its enhancement of image and PR. How shrewd of the National Theatre to sign off from its Covid season of screenings with this particular drama, at a time when the arts are fighting for their lives.
If that topicality gives Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play a certain edge, there are many other respects in which the piece is decidedly showing its age. The decade from which it sprung was, aesthetically, a period in which grandiosity and pretension were often curiously blended with an overblown, even lurid theatricality. It was an age of high concept – some (though by no means all) of it glorious. Think of Ziggy Stardust, of the Who’s Tommy and the grinning, ecstatic vulgarity of Ken Russell’s film version. Think of Jesus Christ Superstar. Seventies Shaffer, having moved on from the aridly adroit West End comedies of his earlier career, is a prog-rocker by comparison, the Genesis of drama, if you like. His plays Equus and Amadeus yoke beard-stroking musings about Apollonian and Dionysiac dualities to imagery that is steeped in sex and violence, and at times so portentous that it treads dangerously close to Spinal Tap territory. The raunchy ritual and horse-blinding in Equus seem especially overripe nowadays. As for Amadeus, its elements blend to create a peculiar flavour. It is protracted, ponderous, simultaneously earnest and florid. And it’s burdened with clumsy exposition, cod theatrical devices and a cast of caricatures. If it works at all, it’s in spite of Shaffer’s lumpy stew, not because of it.
Fortunately, director Michael Longhurst seizes upon what is crowd-pleasing in the piece – its thriller-shaped story, which is delivered in sardonic, rueful flashback, and plays extremely fast and loose with historical fact – and delivers it with wit, pace and ingenuity. He also gives the more grandiose intellectual declarations about religion and immortality enough emotional heft to stop us from complaining, like Joseph II, that the three-hour drama outstays its welcome. Longhurst’s success is thanks in no small part to a sensational lead performance from Lucian Msamati as Antonio Salieri, the Viennese court composer who systematically destroys Mozart’s health, sanity and livelihood.
Salieri’s torment is that although he feels he has a divine calling as a composer, he cannot deliver. Mozart, on the other hand, creates sublime music effortlessly, but is in his rival’s eyes “an obscene child,” a “creature,” romping through Europe’s royal courts like a sugar-crazed toddler, spewing scatological nonsense and generally indulging his basest appetites. Salieri’s campaign against him is also an assault on, and an insult to, God – a defiance that reaches its noisy climax with cathedral-like awe, terror and splendour, all blazing light and thunderous chords. The music is played live, onstage, the woodwind, brass and bows gleaming their enchantment through shadows. Sometimes, in Paul Arditti’s enormously effective sound design, modern rhythms break into the familiar classical strains: A rock beat reverberates during a masked ball; jazz slithers through a scene of illicit seduction.
Likewise, the 21st century peaks into the 18th. The musicians wear modern dress; there are mobile phones; the pastry-addicted Salieri tucks into a box of Krispy Kremes. Msamati is very much our contemporary, challenging us to confront our own mediocrity, to question how we, and our age, will be remembered.
As Mozart, Adam Gillen is tasked with embodying sacred and profane, as well as genius, and with supplying the play’s galvanising, non-stop whirligig of colourful exuerbance. It is a role that requires huge expenditure of energy, charisma, and a fearlessness of excess. Shaffer writes Wolfgang as mannered and manic; he allows little room for nuance. Gillen can’t be faulted for his dynamism, but the problem is that his performance is almost as exhausting to watch as it must be to execute. We are entertained. We are irritated. Yet we are never, really, charmed – and if we don’t fall in love with him a little, some of the drama’s tragic dimension is lost.
Msamati’s Salieri, though, is meticulous, his every gesture and expression eloquent and expertly timed. His sly scheming, his silken politicking, his teasing of the audience, all are unfailingly absorbing. The slow horror and regret that steal across his face as his bitter plot succeeds, and the way his voice cracks when he admits to an ailing, cash-strapped Mozart that The Magic Flute is an extraordinary work of art, are riveting moments of raw humanity that ring resoundingly true in a play that doesn’t much deal in subtlety. It’s masterly acting, the greatest pleasure of a production that, despite the material’s discords, manages to strike almost all the right notes.