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Amadeus review at National Theatre, London – ‘vulgar and divine’

Adam Gillen and Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner Adam Gillen and Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

This is both a homecoming and memorial. The late Peter Shaffer’s masterful Amadeus was first staged in the Olivier – the space it was written for – in 1979, with Paul Scofield as the Italian composer Antonio Salieri and Simon Callow as the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It would go on to win him a Tony, and eventually an Oscar when it was filmed in 1984.

Michael Longhurst’s revival captures the glory of Shaffer’s writing, its wit and agility, its intellectual richness, its impishness. It’s a feast of a play and the cast eats its fill. Mozart, as written by Shaffer, is a creature of excess, infantile and irritating, shock-headed and potty-mouthed, a raspberry blower and a tantrum thrower, a flicker of V-signs who likes to have his bottom spanked.

Adam Gillen’s performance as the former child prodigy with the extraordinary musical memory is grotesque yet compellingly so. He’s part Violet Elizabeth Bott, part Rik from The Young Ones as channelled by Gene Wilder at his most fevered and strange; a lisping, lurching, human punctuation mark, a man-brat in gold knickerbockers and sugar pink DMs with a laugh like a particularly tipsy hyena. But, though his performance is suitably huge, he also lets us glimpse the man behind the caricature.

Lucian Msamati, while inevitably less extreme, also gives a performance of power and size. Salieri is devastatingly aware of his mediocrity and his anguish is palpable. It gnaws at him; it twists and twists. We first see him on stage as a bitter, elderly man, sitting in a wheeled chair, on the last night of his life, and then watch as he transforms into a younger incarnation of his character. The relationship that gradually builds between the two men is complex: envy, respect, affection and resentment all tangled up together. (Msamati’s deadpan manner of saying the word “botty” is also a delight). Karla Crome, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, meanwhile, is brash yet bright and kind. She provides Gillen with an able dancing partner and adds a necessary note of warmth.

Longhurst’s production contains some bravura moments, musical and visual. The Southbank Sinfonia (who also performed at the National in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) is brilliantly integrated into the world of the play. The musicians bring their instruments on to begin with and become part of the fabric of the production rather than just playing in the background.

Chloe Lamford’s costumes – mile-wide panniers and spangly trainers – pop with colour and there’s a gleefully anachronistic quality to some of the dance scenes, the music throbbing as the masked cast cavort in slow motion. But for all its playful, punkish energy, the production is capable of tenderness and profundity too. As the men grow closer, and the grave tugs at Mozart, the mood of the production becomes quieter, more affecting and reflective.

This revival, while far from reverential, feels genuinely celebratory. It is at once both vulgar and divine. It makes you appreciate Shaffer’s genius while also reflecting on the nature of genius, the sacred aspect of creativity and the possibility of achieving immortality through art.

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Brilliantly acted, musically and visually rich revival of Peter Shaffer’s greatest play