If there is one advantage of lockdown, it is the access to plays you have missed seeing on stage, in my case Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at London’s National Theatre and again at its rerun in 2018. Thank you, National Theatre At Home.
I first watched the Oscar-showered film from 1984 in school when I was ten. When we got a new music teacher two years later, she asked us if we had watched Amadeus already – and the entire class denied it to get a chance to watch it again. We were then to write a summary and I remember losing my notes and by pure chance found the play in a slim booklet when visiting a family member. It became therefore the first play I ever read and because no one else had done so in my class; I got top marks with extra stars, despite misspelling the name of narrator and major character Antonio Salieri all the way through. Even back then, I was fascinated by how close the film had been to the script, not even considering that I had watched a dubbed version and read a translation into German.
When the National Theatre staged their 21st century Amadeus for the first time in 2016, it received a lot of attention (among its raving reviews) because of its colour-blind cast (a term by now seen critical by some). More importantly, we are given a superb cast, every single person on stage shining brightly, even on the recording. And to stage Amadeus anywhere, even 35 years after Miloš Forman’s film was released (the same director who had already turned HAIR into a film), still brave – even if you have the surely bombastic National Theatre’s production budget.
The recording starts with the audience’s coughing choral to get you in a theatrical mood – and I smile in front of my work laptop, even if I have to keep Outlook open in the background. Surely it quickly appears that Amadeus deserves my full attention on the couch, but I am pretty screened out in the evenings already and therefore try to extend my lunch break.
The text drops German, Italian and French musical terms non-stop, reflecting the international musical jet set of its time who play for baroque and rococo aristocrats in Europe’s courts; who has hit the nerve of the monarch settles and becomes Kapellmeister. The Italian musician Salieri, played by Lucian Msamati, has achieved exactly this to entertain Austrian emperor Ludwig II (Marie-Antoinette’s brother), he tells us as an old man from his wheelchair, munching donuts and ignoring his carers’ phones beeping. He brings us back to 1780s Vienna, namedropping the who is who of the big composers of his time (Gluck, Rossini, Bach to name a few) in an era of enlightenment (“music is God’s heart”) and soubrettes with sailing ships in their wigs, when artists in golden laces and pink frills entertain the high society under golden cherubs.
An orchestra appears on stage with violins, clarinets, flutes, high horns, kettledrums and contrabasses – and a 25-year-old former wunderkind from Salzburg who spent his whole youth touring the international royal courts and currently working on a comical opera, to everyone’s shock in that ugly, vulgar language called German. A scandal indeed: Opera is not a humorous genre, quite the opposite. And always sung in Italian. This Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart climbs on instruments like a monkey whilst squeaking silly bawdies among court folk, an obscene man-child in an opulent world of sacred etiquette and pompous nobility. Salieri knows that everyone sees Mozart as an amusing (even annoying) and undeniable talent– but he also, maybe more than anyone else, sees the uniqueness in Mozart’s work. From now on envy and jealousy dominate his life at court: How can this flamboyant, yet immature, almost manically silly and simply ridiculous “filthy creature”, whose actions create and are clearly a “voice of God”, create sheer perfect music and harmonies effortlessly, and hence insulting everything sacral to Salieri?
The comedy opera “The Abduction of the Serail” is seen by royalty (and single scenes staged as mini playback shows centuries later by 10 years old in grammar schools, in Germany in the late 1990s at least). The Emperor is clearly amused but comments: “Too many notes”. Mozart defends his work by describing Italian opera as dreary, all about long forgotten gods, and utters that it is impossible to bore the French – but no matter how curious the emperor, how radically new his ideas and how entertaining his views, he is avoided as a teacher and this means there is no regular income. His reputation as a philanderer is recognized also by his young wife Constanze (I am taken away by Karla Crome cockney pronunciation of the name Mozart and the Caribbean twist of her costumes), who sees the sparse income spent on mask balls and parties. Public concerts do not pay well and so she turns to Salieri for advice, even sharing her husband’s score drafts with him. It is that particular document’s perfection which reflects how he feels about his own compositions. He feels so mocked just by reading them that he decides to end his belief in God and now lives to destroy his incarnation, the one who has been gifted more for reasons non-comprehensible.
Here the second act starts with modern pop and jazz interpretations, reflecting that also Amadeus is looking for a new sound. He realises that no one keeps up with the speed and quality of his work, (more than previously Adam Gillen reminds me of a young Schlingensief in his Doc Martens) and feels restricted by the court’s rules for stage productions. Did Joseph II really forbid ballet in general? I still need to look this up. In any case, this monarch who was busy fighting the French, the Turks etc loses interest in being challenged after work (“I do not understand this – is this modern?”) and Salieri carefully works on his enemy’s downfall to secure his own immortality.
According to Shaffer’s play Mozart was a child of its operatic rococo time: Frill-filled fun for the very few, denying all worries and responsibilities other than the next piece of entertainment and with the only fear of appearing ordinary or in need for effort, fully absorbed in pleasure seeking and indulging anything you can for as long as you can. His early death, brought on by sickness and poverty, made him pay for it. Shaffer’s work is fiction and the competition between the two men as well, but it is nevertheless so well composed, one almost believes it cannot have happened in any other way.
If anything good has come out of the current crisis, which forced theatres to close, is that bombastic productions like this Amadeus are not forgotten.
***** out of 5 stars
Amadeus is available through the National Theatre At Home on demand service. I opted for the monthly subscription which costs £9.98 and gives access to watch various plays.