The best theatre, in my opinion, comments on society or humanity in a smart or clever or meaningful way. Sometimes it makes you feel things, and sometimes the thing it makes you feel is anger. I haven’t felt truly angry from a play in a long time, but “Amadeus”, a fascinating, provocative, wonderfully staged revival of the Peter Shaffer classic at the National Theatre, made me so angry I couldn’t talk for hours afterwards. Granted I was angry about other things too (hellooooo cops are terrorists and a traitorous turd cheeto runs America and will any lads EVER care that drinking is illegal on the tube?? Ugh my stomach hurts all the time like Chidi) but this show definitely added to my seething yet impotent rage. And overall I’m glad for it, because theatre should do things like that. The depths of evil that man can sink to are well known today, especially in the political and business realms, but it was nice to see that evil men exist in music too! Evil men everywhere!
This play, called “Amadeus” as you can see because that’s Mozart’s middle name and a play called “Wolfgang” would probably draw the wrong crowd (though I’d be there for that play too) (omg it could be an absolutely terrifying crime drama or just about pups) (please let it be about pups), instead of taking notes from history completely rewrites history, so know that before going in or seeing the movie. The characters as depicted are fictionalized entirely except for names and like jobs and things they wrote. Got it? It begins with Salieri as an old man bemoaning his lot in life and how his God betrayed him by making Mozart so talented and also he kind of admits to poisoning Mozart and being responsible for his death and his entire downfall so you’re like hmm this guy is a piece of shit, right? He is, good observation. Old Man Salieri clearly has lost his marbles and is scared of meeting his God that he had denounced and failed by being such a shitty person. Salieri, played by Lucian Msamati, is captivating throughout the play, but it’s a difficult jump into his performance in the beginning. It opens with him talking, and talking, and talking, and you really have to listen and it was kind of exhausting because it’s the most tedious part of the show. And it takes a minute to get used to his enunciation. My mind wandered a little in those first few minutes and I had to remind myself to pay attention, which is not a good sign but it is a result of how this is written. It’s a very big ask to dive straight into endless monologuing. Anyway I got over it in five minutes like Doug Dorsey (omg remind me to check if “The Cutting Edge” is on Netflix prayers up) and then I was in it.
After Salieri’s deathbed confessional/droning, we flashback to his heyday in the Viennese court, as he impresses everyone with his simplistic compositions and stays true to his god. Everything looks peachy keen for him but then he hears about young upstart named Mozart. He goes to a party to hear him play and is riveted, stricken with the realization that the person he is listening to play is beyond earthly talents and gifts. But when he sees that the person bequeathed by god with such gifts is an infantile, idiotic fool of a man, Salieri is disgusted and angry with his god. Salieri is very self-involved, you see. He believes that his god, whom he has been so devoted to his entire life, has betrayed him personally by giving such musical gifts to such a fool. So, naturally, Salieri denounces his god and commits his life to destroying Mozart’s. And destroy it he does, all while making Mozart believe that he’s his friend, which is as cruel and deceptive as you get.
Lucian Msamati’s performance is remarkable and very powerful. However, I was most taken with Adam Gillen’s as Mozart. It’s a bizarre, kind of wacky, unbelievably physical portrayal and a very divisive one. I heard old British farts afterwards talking about how good the show was but how Mozart was just ‘altogether too much,’ with too much going on that it was distracting. But I am HERE for it. or WAS THERE for it. I thought Gillen’s rambunctious physicality and strange mannerisms and truly nutty line readings made for an extraordinary performance. It was overwrought but clearly carefully considered and it worked to convey Mozart’s peculiar, immature, zany, and truly crazy character. (Remember he wasn’t actually an absurd fool.) I’m surprised too because usually I’d be like ENOUGH ALREADY I GET IT YOU ARE KOOKY but he was quite effective. It helps that his role is significantly smaller than Salieri’s; I’m sure that if he were onstage the whole time it would be as exhausting for the audience as it no doubt is for the actor. But as is, it was a great performance, and through all the folly, he really connected emotionally with the audience in Act II so much as to be heart-breaking, which is no small feat.
The other highlight of the production was how the entire thing was staged. Having never seen this show before, I can’t comment on how much is due to director Michael Longhurst’s vision but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t hurt to give him the credit. I loved how the orchestra was part of the show, with all of the musicians and all of their instruments on stage whenever music was playing. The musicians, all dressed in black, were the townspeople, the court, the citizens reacting to gossip about the two famous composers, all while playing the composers’ works. Not only did this staging effectively show how the populace played into the drama, but it was also simply nice to see the orchestra onstage instead of hidden underneath it. A great spark of life came from it.
And we do hear lots of Mozart’s work throughout the show, so even for a play there is still a good deal of music, which is my kind of play. We hear his operas as they are produced and performed for the first time, we hear them with Salieri and react in the same way – in total awe. Well maybe not the same amount of awe, for most of us have heard them before and in better ways but you get what I mean. We get a scene from The Marriage of Figaro and watch Salieri positively aghast at how ingenious it is. We get a snippet from Don Giovanni and are like howww did the rest of the populace not realize they were amongst a genius? We unfortunately get the most famous part of The Magic Flute – the Queen of the Night aria – and yes it’s the best part and yes it’s so famous that they had to do that part but it is also the hardest part to sing and let’s just say it’s not like the greatest opera singers in the world are spending their time doing plays where they have 10 minutes of stage time. Not to be mean not to be mean.
The music was used very effectively to match the drama, as Salieri realizes how great it is and how bad he is in comparison and the music grows along with his horror. At the end of the first act the music of the performance builds into a giant dramatic ‘boom’ of an ending as Salieri cowers in insignificance and I thought HOLY CRAP that is a KILLER way to end an act! It was that kind of act break that totally pumps you up with its drama and its success in making you feel all kinds of emotions and then…it wasn’t actually the act break. It should have been, but instead Salieri talks to the audience for 5 or 10 more minutes, putting words to what we just witnessed kind of unnecessarily. This monologue after what I thought was a great button to the entire act was like letting air out of a balloon. Just so unsatisfying when the most incredible alternative was so close within reach. Salieri talks about how Mozart is so good despite being a fool, and he’s so angry that his god has given such gifts to such a fool so now he will turn against god and destroy Mozart as a way to get back at god. And you’re like a) we kind of just saw that with your good acting show don’t tell and all that and b) you couldn’t have explained anything left unclear at the beginning of the next act? I just really loved that button that wasn’t meant to be.
The build-up of how Mozart’s unmatched musical genius destroys Salieri’s sense of self and sense of how he himself fits into the world occurs dramatically and believably, but the problem for me was that Salieri is such a piece of shit that there is no chance of feeling any empathy for him, and if you don’t feel empathy for the main character it’s kind of hard to care. All the caring, at least on my part, came for poor sad Mozart, unwittingly destroyed by another man’s jealousy. But Salieri made me furious because he was a monster, and I realized how that’s the most realistic part of the whole show – that some people really truly are horrible monsters with zero capacity for empathy themselves and so they give no reason for you to have any empathy for them. With two lead actors in the play (and one black even though it’s a white historical figure so yay because that’s just common now and that’s great) I couldn’t help but think of Hamilton, and how we have a historical villain and our hero. But Hamilton blurs the lines between good and bad, and although Burr makes some pretty significant mistakes, he ends the show aware of his failures and remorseful of his mistakes. He regrets thinking that because Hamilton was better than him at certain things that that meant he had to destroy him. Whereas Salieri is like shit this idiotic fool is better than me I must destroy him, and even on his deathbed he regrets nothing. Even then, he bellows about how his deplorable actions ensured that he will be remembered forever, because history will always remember Mozart and his incredible talent, but it otherwise would have forgotten about ordinary old Salieri, so by linking himself with Mozart’s destruction and death he will always be remembered too. He doesn’t care one bit that it will be in infamy; he’s glad for it lest it mean he would be forgotten. The comparison to Hamilton is clear, in that Burr is forever linked to Hamilton’s name, but at least in that fictionalized account of things he didn’t aim for that. Salieri thinks the desire to be remembered excuses his actions, and that is despicable and infuriating. And that’s what was so provocative about this play, the questions it raises about legacies and about being appreciated in your own time. It is never a question to me that it is better to be a good person and do good deeds in real life than worry about how history will treat you but I’m not a psychopath now am I.
“Amadeus” obviously makes for a very in-depth discussion of various issues. I haven’t even talked about how mind-numbingly clichéd its treatment of women is but chances are I’ll have plenty more opportunities to broach that subject in the future. The real dramatic element here is yet again the toxic male ego and I can’t think of anything I’ve seen recently that does a better job at exploring that.
Okay I just looked it up and it closed on Tuesday! I had NO IDEA we were seeing it on its final weekend! Eek sorry. It had a super short run (3 months) for such a huge production. I wonder why! Okay I looked it up again and apparently this was just a sweet little revival of the revival, which had its real run over a year ago! It was so beloved that they brought it back for a 3-month hey-thanks-for-loving-us farewell tour. Can’t believe I wasn’t aware of any of this ahhh.
The audience at the National skews older so they are usually more whispery than phone-y. Honestly whisperers are harder to deal with because you look like a jerk if you say omgggg stop whispering so much but you are a hero for reporting people who use their phones well at least that’s how I think of it. I report phone users ALL DAY ALL DAY.
If you guys are reading this, know that my fury after the show was like 40% from the questions raised by the play as intentioned and eleventy billion percent because of your incompetence. There was NO STAFF in the circle (the mezzanine, which is the only upper level in this theatre). There were no ushers or guards or anything during the interval or after the show ended. And there was zero personnel at the start except for ticket-takers, but they were not acting as ushers. No one told people to shut their phones off, and more glaringly no one told the people in the front row of the circle not to put their shit on the overhang. The ledge – where speakers are attached – was lined with drinks because British people can’t go an hour without alcohol. In every single theatre in the world, an usher would come down and remind those patrons that you cannot put anything on that rim, let alone liquid, because if it tips, it falls on people sitting below. Or into the speakers. But no one apparently works there and so the drinks stayed there. I wanted to report something at intermission but couldn’t find anyone to report it to. It’s a good thing it wasn’t a very serious problem but I guess this means that that National Theatre is a-ok with anything you might think of doing since there's no need for ushers or managers up there. I talked to a representative about this on twitter and they basically said ‘eh we don’t really need anyone up there and after the show there was a security guard by the FRONT DOOR’ (meaning down 5 flights of stairs) so I guess that is blanket permission to take pictures and film whatever performances that you want to so have fun! (Theatres here must do better, in case you haven’t picked up on that yet.)