Amadeus – the absolute beauty. Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

May 3, 2018

In which I try to speak about The National Theatre’s astounding Amadeus and instead reveal only why I love theatre: it lets me feel things without the need for all these stupid words.

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No matter if you’re the most arrogant human or the most self-effacing, full of talent or lacking it entirely, within all of us lies some conflict in which we are simultaneously the centre of our own little Universes, yet understand our total insignificance to the real Universe.  Amadeus, a play about genius and envy taps into our human desires.  We are mortal, so crave immortality.  Most of us not in a literal sense, but most of us hope our life has some meaning or impact.  When in truth, most of our lives don’t.  There are countless ways people may hope they have impact or leave some legacy and Antonio Salieri hopes he can leave behind music of such divinity that it and so he will be immortal.

Salieri initially strives only to celebrate and worship his God by creating exquisite music.  Maybe not the most noble wish, but admirable enough, understandable and relatable.  He asks his God to be able to be a composer and to be granted sufficient fame to enjoy it in return for being a good man.  Both of these things Salieri is granted.  His long years of toil and efforts at being a good man result in a successful, respected career, but they do nothing to make his adequate yet popular art transcend to the sublime – a fact he’s not really aware of until along comes young Mozart, spilling out music of the Heavens in the middle of toilet jokes with the ease of breathing, making it abundantly apparent, even if just to himself how mediocre Salieri is.  Salieri initially tries to deny Mozart’s genius as a preposterous, impossible notion.  Talent is a gift from God surely?  Who would God bestow gifts upon?  Surely the most reverent, noble, good and deserving people.  This creature who Salieri part-snobbishly, part with cause deems disgusting and distasteful surely could never have been so favoured?  But once Salieri acknowledges that Mozart’s talent is not some fluke, that he is extraordinary, he becomes first bitter, then cruel.  His quest for sublimity twists so he wants to destroy the thing he simultaneously loves: Mozart’s music and eventually, Mozart himself.  Until instead of desiring to be a sublime creator, Salieri craves only fame, then, even infamy will do.  In the end Salieri’s bitterness turns on himself, eating and destroying him as it drives him to become banal, petty, turns him callous and cruel and by the very end, leaves him finally pitiable.

Amadeus reaches up to the best and the worst of what we humans are: from the pure sublimity of Mozart’s music, to the basest pettiness and cruelty that can lie within our hearts.  It is a play in love with music and it is a play for anyone who loves art (surely everyone sitting in a theatre?!) and who is not-Mozart.  So, for all of us.  We all (I think?!) have a yearning within us to reach “the unreachable” and very occasionally art actually reaches it.  Mozart most definitely did and for me, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus does too, especially in Michael Longhust’s stunning, music-filled production.

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And music truly is a huge character in this play.  The musicians are almost always there, whether being Mozart’s actual orchestra, or more like ghosts of Mozart’s music.  They are serious, then playful, woven in completely amongst everything else going on on stage.  The music is everything from pure Mozart, to sound effects, to opera-cats, to sultry jazz and augmentations of Mozart via amped up drum accompaniments.  It’s reverent, modern, entertaining and moving.  As in the production still above, the music physically bears down upon Salieri, the stage sometimes moving as a literal representation of the psychological and emotional weight of Mozart’s music upon him.  The story of Amadeus is entertaining, witty and by the end heartbreakingly sad, but often moments in the play where it really pierces your heart, the music is at the fore.  Before saying anything else about this production, I wanted to get across how amazing it has been to just feel the power of these musicians and the way the music has been used in this production of Amadeus.  Thank you so much to all of the musicians, Simon Slater, Paul Arditti and all others involved.

“Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.” may be an apt quote from the play to reflect upon.  But while it surely is true that talent is unrelated to “goodness”, neither Amadeus nor this production of it are so simple in what they truly express.  Is Mozart a bad person and Salieri good?  Most definitely not!  In fact it is Salieri who is driven to be despicable in utterly inexcusable ways.  But even had Salieri not been driven to be so: are you good person because you simply do not allow yourself to act on “sinful” thoughts or desires, though you continue to feel them?  In any case, while it is easy to understand why Salieri would find Mozart irritating, Salieri is clearly the more deeply flawed human here.  And there is, I think, a definite pureness not only to Mozart’s music, but to his spirit.  But neither can you say that Mozart is without sin or flaws.  He is far from it.  And ultimately, what human is without flaws? No-one.  This is a play about two deeply flawed humans and all the more poignant for this.  Surely Peter Shaffer himself must have reflected upon the sublime in relation to his own work.  And perhaps every artist may think on this and find themselves lacking, from their perspective?

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There are other plays I’ve loved and I hope there’ll be many I’ll love in the future, but I know I’ll never see anything quite like Amadeus again. It was so special to me.  I want to shout it from the treetops and thank it and I adored it so much that I want to write something to remember it forever.  I feel so privileged and grateful that I got to experience and love this wonderful production, filled with glorious, moving music and impeccable performances by and stunningly also between Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen – both actors whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to this play (so thank you too Amadeus for introducting me to their work.)  It was a theatrical form of Mozart’s music for me.

And you should STOP HERE if you read this, because this truly is for me and about the things this has meant to me and will be a boring pointless chore to read any more.  I’d definitely skip all the blue and purple BRUISE-of-shame at least, for it has little to do with the production and is just me recounting my history with Amadeus.

I share now a memory of the tiniest moment during the final performance as I experienced it.  I first saw Amadeus on 27/10/16 (SO LONG AGO, WOW!  I just looked it up and discovered it only opened on 19th October, so I literally did spend almost the entire run of Amadeus with it.  Was that the night after press night?  I see reviews of the first run are dated 27/10…?!?  I obviously only had my one ticket initially, but I just could not get over the play.  I guess I was lucky to have seen it early in the run as the National Theatre released more tickets for the latter part of this first run later on.)  I should have written something about the play then, as I went on to see it a few more times in the first run and at a NT Live screening and *cough* slightly more than a few times in the second run…!  That is between me, the NT box office and anyone who noticed me!  I last saw it on its closing night, 24/04/18.  I say this because I want to convey how it’s impossible to write about something you’ve seen a lot, because…

For the final performance of Amadeus, I was sat far to the right of the stage.  In order for this to make sense: a little context.  Mozart has just discovered his Father has died and Salieri has offered solace and support in an almost Fatherly way, seeming to Mozart as if he were his friend, whilst still in truth desiring Mozart’s downfall.  Now, while we hear Mozart’s music, Salieri discusses and craves his extraordinary gift.  

In the scene I speak of, Mozart conducts a fragment of Cosi Fan Tutte and Salieri speaks of Mozart immortalizing sisters Constanze and Aloysia, transforming two average girls into divinities through his music, which we hear and feel for ourselves as we hear the singers and musicians.  Salieri rails at God, asking and praying for God to provide him with Mozart’s gift and for the soaring spirit of Mozart’s music to be present in even one piece he might compose.  Salieri ends the music, stopping the singers himself, pushing them to the floor, desperately shouting to God to “Grant this to me!” “I do not need you Salieri! I have Mozart! Better for you to be silent!” is God’s response.  Mozart laughs & Salieri says this is God’s laughter.  

Mozart has his back to the audience at this point, but because Salieri was delivering his performance to the centre of the auditorium and as I was so far to the side, as Salieri is roaring at the world in anguish, I glanced Mozart’s way and could see his expression as he stood atop the piano, arms still aloft post conducting.  Upon Mozart’s face as he looked skyward was, as I saw it, equal anguish: desperation and a terrible kind of horror and sorrow.  It stuck with me, that look.  I don’t know if it was Mozart’s sorrow or the actor’s as Mozart’s face could be seen by very few in the audience here, even if glancing that way.  Here in the play, once his Father has died I’ve felt a change in how Mozart conducts music – gradually the music controlling him, where before he controlled it.  And this anguish does fit the torment and fear which begins to consume Mozart from here on in the play.  I’d just never seen this here until this final performance.

This desolate look, as desolate as Salieri then speaks of feeling as he plans his final aim to destroy Mozart entirely is followed by Mozart lying down on the piano and hanging himself upside down over the edge.  If you’ve seen the play, you’ll know it gets a laugh.  But something about the sad point-of-no-return of that desperate expression of Mozart’s when atop that piano in the final show stayed with me.  I don’t know how to explain.  I suppose it was something about a fear in Mozart when juxtaposed with that glorious music I’d just heard… and which was silenced by Salieri like a physical attack. I suppose Salieri saw Mozart as not only being the creator of sublime music, but as being granted this gift by God’s grace and so possessing the only thing Salieri had ever wanted and asked God for himself.  He remains blind wilfully or otherwise to the reality of Mozart’s suffering, but there it was, plain to see (so it seemed) to me.  And somehow so much was there in this look that I felt for the first time in this last performance.

Part of why I wanted to share that moment was to remember it, because already more than a week has gone and memories fade.  Even now, how clearly is this what I remember and how much is what I think I remember?  Also I wanted to convey why I can’t properly write about The National Theatre’s Amadeus: When you see a play lots, you become too close to it.  You notice tiny details which you read into because of your own experiences as well as seeing intent on stage.  A great play always has more to give, but I think there is a truth to the response you have the first time you experience a play and it is impossible now to recount my first experience.  I watched too many times.  Yet, now it is over, I cannot let Amadeus go.  It feels like a phantom limb.  I am yearning, aching, lovesick for it.  I want to leave something in words to remember forever what it has been to me.

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Amadeus itself meant a lot to me as I used to adore and watch the film over and over from when I was a young child to when I was doing my GCSE’s when I’d watch it instead of revising, telling myself “Well, it’s related!” well aware and without a care for my self-deception.  Then, Mozart’s Requiem was in my actual music exam and I felt like Mozart himself had helped me out in some ghost-like magical manner.  I don’t believe in God, but I’m perfectly happy to believe in the spirit of Mozart helping little old me out in my school exams.  I always remember the feeling when Mozart played in the exam.  Now, I’ve experienced it, the stage version far surpasses the film for me, but while I was really excited when I heard the National would be staging Amadeus, when I arrived to see it for the first time, I had some trepidation too.  I’d not watched the film recently, but I’d seen it so many times, film and performances in it were seared upon my consciousness which I think if anything would make it harder for this version to impress me?  Therefore, what a joy it has been to experience a story which has been so dear to me since I was little, brought to life in such a new, immediate and perfect way.  And this is what Amadeus has over any other play I can imagine ever being written and put on.  What other play could not only get to me so much due to what it is, but could the story have meant a great deal to me as long as I remember?  Yet as well as this, Amadeus on stage has provided and revealed things to me anew and beyond all that meant so much to me already, since I was a child.

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Alright, here goes the (even more) awkward bit where I try to praise everyone without sounding like an idiot (too late!)  Amadeus had absolute powerhouse performances.  Lucian Msamati’s Salieri grinds at your soul with a performance of passion, pain, cruelty, beauty and hubris.  Lucian is fearless and holds the play, barely leaving the stage in three hours.  As the audience listen to Mozart’s music, performed live and feel it utterly, so Salieri listens.  You see Lucian’s Salieri feel the music, just as you do.  You hear and experience him articulate precisely your own experience:  his desire, his agony, his yearning, his pain are also ours.  You could also watch Lucian at any time when Salieri is not the focus of the drama.  His reactions and disgust at the infantile Mozart as he voyeuristically listens from hiding places is just one example.  I have loved the shifts in his nature – how one moment he lets slip the true adoration he has for Mozart and his music and the sensitivity of Salieri’s soul, the next he is stake-your-own-heart cruelty.  Love and hatred are definitely closely entwined in Lucian’s Salieri.  The Olivier stage is vast, yet close to the audience and it holds wondrous possibility for connection. This is Salieri’s story, and if you happen to be near the front, he sometimes tells a fragment of it directly to you.  It is such a special thing to experience yourself and to see happen to others: as though you have been gifted a tiny bit of the play, especially for you.

Salieri is intent on destroying sublime art and there is no excusing it.  That he recognises the extent of Mozart’s genius only makes it worse.  It’s made even more awful as Mozart is in many respects innocent, and Salieri not only destroys Mozart, but does so while making Mozart believe he is his final friend, even a kind of Father figure when Mozart loses his own Father.  So, you while you can certainly empathise for Salieri and his plight, you feel no pity him at all – what he does is inexcusably cruel and unforgivable… until the very end of the play, when it is too late to pity him.  Just as Salieri cannot pity Mozart until too late.  Thank you Lucian.

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For me, Adam Gillen’s Mozart was the utter astonishment of Amadeus though.  He’s punk rock anarchy. A whirligig of physical energy.  A revolutionary and a rebel, both utterly assured of the truth of his own talent, yet needy as a child for the reassurance and acceptance of his Father.  He’s a toddler or teen: spinning and whirring, naughty and innocent, knowing then trusting.  He’s all instinct and he understands the workings of the important things in life, with nothing to reign it in.  He’s frustrated to exist in a world where he is ahead of his time so others cannot yet recognise what he himself knows to be true about his work.  And much as Mozart gets what life is without needing all those words, he’s out of depth in social and practical contexts: always a bit (a LOT) too much for anyone.  Saying too much, doing too much, being too much and resultantly offending those he needs on his side from every angle from The Emperor to his own wife.  It’s a big performance: physical and out there, yet also clearly considered and specific.  Mozart has the conflicting and unrestrained qualities of a child and the instincts and sensitivity of an adult.  It’s no surprise that this Mozart’s music should be sublime, when it comes from someone so spiritually free.  Yet in the first half of the play, while I have to admit, I did not find Mozart annoying personally (for me, from the start there’s too much sweetness there for Mozart to not be touching right from the beginning), I know others did and you do see precisely why Salieri would be irritated and I can see why some audience members might concur.

The first half of Amadeus is mainly entertaining and comedic.  Of course there’s seriousness in there and the music breaks your heart, but it’s spectacular and fun overall.  Then, after the interval Adam’s Mozart gradually more fully lets you in to somewhere deeper.  I’m not sure how the performance opens up to become so completely heartbreaking such that you come to really detest Salieri for what he’s doing, but alongside the large scale, the performance allows a more intimate connection too with the audience.  And I think this shifts gear rather suddenly: when Mozart’s Father dies.  In a breath, Mozart turns from irreverent joker to heartbroken orphan.  His security is ripped away and he becomes fragile and in need of support.  He’s still the same Mozart: it isn’t like a suddenly different man, but now we see more obviously the vulnerability in Mozart which was always there and it begins to seem as though the music within him is almost too much to contain.  Where in the first half of the play, Mozart was full of childish, puerile energy, bouncing off the walls and off all of the people in Court, now it beings to feel as though this is almost this vast music inside of him which can’t be contained within the shell of a mere man.  I spoke before of how I began to feel as though the music were controlling Mozart rather than he it from this point.  And in a few, yet poignant moments throughout the whole play you also begin to understand fragments of the sensitivity and kind of mind that can create this art.  Mozart does not possess Salieri’s verbal eloquence, but he does speak the occasional deep and heartfelt truths about music and life, even if no-one really listens.  Adam is brilliant both at the largest and smallest scales and for me his performance deepens the play.  Mozart possesses a childlike innocence and fragility, at odds with Salieri’s cunning so it is therefore not only the destruction of a man who creates such sublime music which rips through your heart, but the destruction of a soul essentially pure and tender, as his music is.

I loved so many touches in Adam’s performance.  Mozart’s wit and humour, his unawareness, Mozart’s punk bravura at the piano; the fact that he makes it work that Mozart is simultaneously grown up, in true love with his wife, yet also childlike not only in comedy and crudeness, but in an innocence and sweetness.  I love how Mozart conducts music and just as you could spend a whole night watching Salieri listening to Mozart’s music and reacting to those moments he is observing, you could spend forever watching Mozart conduct.  Adam doesn’t so much conduct how Mozart might have, but instead gives his conducting the utter spirit of Mozart.  His performance is both lightness and intensity, comedy and pathos and I cannot imagine it is an easy role to get right mainly because it’s painted so out there by Peter Shaffer, but also because despite that this is a fictional story, you are still playing actual Mozart!

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I say I love theatre, but there aren’t a vast swathes of performances that blow me away entirely and this performance certainly did it.   It’s even more rare that I’d try to enter the cheese churn (is it called a cheese churn that makes cheese?!) of writing like this about it.  But thank you so much Adam.  Through Lucian Msamati’s commanding Salieri we connect to our own experiences, through Mozart’s music we feel his genius and through Adam’s performance we feel Mozart’s complex humanity and Mozart becomes way more than the genius of his music.  And when Lucian and Adam are acting together on stage it really is glorious.  Just spellbinding and joyous to be able to sit there and watch this craft.

The rest of the cast are brilliant too.  I particularly enjoyed that the few roles who were played by new people when Amadeus returned to the stage were all performed (I thought) in somewhat of a different way to how they had been in the first run.  Yet they all worked wonderfully in both versions.  Can I say that I once dreamed of Hugh Sachs’ pompous Count Orsini-Rosenberg judging me.  Or maybe it was just Mr Sachs himself?!  His character was so judgy that I can’t help feel it directed at me too!  I loved both Emperor Joseph II’s and Constanzes.  And that live music.  How has Amadeus ever been staged without live music?!  I simply cannot envision it.  There was not a single performance of Amadeus I saw where I was not deeply moved at some point by the music itself on stage, and the brilliant singer-actors: often hilarious, always excellent!  Thank you all, and a special thank you from me to the lead oboist – Anna Belei from the programme I think: you got me good every time, to the funny and fabulous Matthew Hargreaves (I think I have the right person there?!) and the magnificent Fleur de Bray.

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I shed many a tear over Amadeus.  After the final day I discovered I’d bitten the inside of my cheeks to shreds, trying to stop myself crying, which I’d not even realised I’d been doing.  But I know the first time I saw the play on stage I spent the majority of the second half sobbing snotty tears so hard I felt I ought to apologise to my seat-neighbours and I found the final scenes between Mozart and Salieri so difficult to watch I could barely bear it and could hardly see the stage through my tears.  It could and did still make me sob at the end of the run.  And this is bearing in mind, I obviously wasn’t surprised by the actual story even on first watch as I did already know it well. Still the play had this power.  Even a year and a half after I first watched it could make me sob.

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What would be the point of plays if you could feel what they were from anything I might say?  I give you fragments here because it is all I have.  One of my favourite moments in Amadeus is The Magic Flute section.  What encapsulate’s Mozart’s spirit and the spirit of this production more than The Magic Flute?  It’s utterly beautiful and entirely magical, just like this production.  It’s reverent, yet modern.  Everyone is on stage and I’m pretty sure never has a fluorescent pink zebra with a recorder been so oddly moving.  Then, when Mozart transforms his dead Father through his music from an accusing, judging ghost to be feared into a forgiving, loving benefactor – The High Priest, and as such does the epitome of turning life into beautiful art, the music and actors themselves bestow the absolute beauty of what art can express, be and convey upon us.  Every time, during this section of the production I found myself smiling with joy and crying simultaneously.  The best feeling.

After loving Amadeus so much during the first run of the play I read the play text with a friend and was surprised to discover that it doesn’t break your heart to just read it.  Amadeus is a work that comes to life on stage in a way the words on a page alone cannot.  I don’t know what witchery it is, but it seemed that way to me when I read it.  Is all of this magic there, hidden on the page, just waiting for the stage?  How much comes from Director Michael Longhurst, the actors, the musicians, everyone else involved in design and creation of the play?  Who knows.  Not me.  I don’t know how it works, but I do know it is magical.  I wish Peter Shaffer could have seen the play.  I’m sorry for writing about it.  There’s something distasteful and sad about writing about art.  Art is to feel and you don’t need words for that, but I just want to remember.

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If I were Empress, I’d have Amadeus gracing the stage eternally.  It is the best and worst of humanity.  And for a little girl who had loved and felt music her whole life (I begged my Mum to take me to the dancing school at the end of my road before I was 3 and still remember the images the music the pianist played would conjure up for me in my mind at that age) Amadeus conveys true love of music.  Maybe I loved it so much as a child because it was the first thing to put into actual words what music had always meant to me?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Amadeus is a play about genius, yet is for every person who is not-Mozart, so for everyone.  And what better example of genius is there?  What music has purer beauty and emotion than Mozart’s?  And what play has spoken to me more purely than this?

Thank you SO, Amadeus.  I am missing you so much.  A beauty of theatre is in its transient nature, but I’d have loved to be able to experience this one forever.  But it’ll stay with me forever.  I even keep thinking about times walking away after a show, looking back at the National Theatre lit up, or standing by the river for a bit watching the water, just keeping the feeling of the show there before the evening had to end.  I couldn’t really have conceived it would end then.  I sing in a daft little choir and we sang Mozart’s Requiem during the run of this play.  This whole Spring has really taken me to some weird Mozartian place.  I love all kinds of music, but had it not been for this play, quite likely I wouldn’t be playing a Mozart piano sonatas CD in the car right now, so it hasn’t just been the experience of the play itself: it’s sort of seeped into all of my life in some way: music like water, filling the cracks in me.  I hope many people involved in the making of theatre saw this production of Amadeus and that perhaps it may inspire more shows involving music (and all art forms) in so integrated and wonderful a way.  I hope Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen have the most spectacularly fulfilling careers ahead of them, as they deserve.

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Amadeus has been absolutely exquisite and there’s no way I can really describe how it’s felt for me to simply be able to sit and watch this magnificent show.  I feel really sad that I’ll never get to feel the way it made me feel again.  Thank you to everyone involved.  And Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen, you are both utter wonder.  I’m going to have to stop talking about Amadeus as I haven’t been able to shut up about it since the play ended and this is so many words, whoops!  But my heart is so full or love and sadness that I’ll never get to experience this on stage again.  I love Amadeus so much that I’m sorry for how much it was to me, because I think I loved it too much.  I want to hold on to it.  I really do hate endings.  However, I am thankful to you Amadeus and to everyone who made you happen.  I am thankful like the big sun of the set and every time I am in the Olivier auditorium in the future, I’ll think upon this production.  No pressure, productions of the future… if any of you are mediocrities, Salieri will absolve you. xxxxx

Photos by Marc Brenner: www.marcbrenner.co.uk

I can’t imagine anyone read, but though it is too late now to catch Amadeus on stage, you can still view it at the National Theatre Archive should you wish. xxx

PS I was totally not going to post this yet.  I was going to try to shorten all these daft thoughts down, but it seems to me if I don’t just post it all I’ll do is add another pointless thousand words, when so many folk have more poignantly got to the heart of Amadeus in 1/10th of this drivel!  Oh well, sorry! And I have feared a hundred thousand things, none of which I shall actually say here, but anyway – there it is! xxx

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