Review: Amadeus at the National Theatre – “The finest piece of art in any medium”.

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The National Theatre's performance of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus perfectly captures the descent in the darkness of a mind broken by desire. Catch it before it leaves streaming.

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The difficulty with Gods is – if that’s a belief you hold – they are, by nature, transcendent. Those things which trouble our minds and fill our waking days do not concern them. At least, not in the same way. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport,” says Gloucester in King Lear. Just as a fly is forced to change the path of its flight when clumsily swatted at, so too do we. They place obstacles in our path to see what we will do. The question is, why? If there are such things as Gods, is it to test our faith or are they just amused by watching us run? This is the question at the centre of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus.

Last year, I was lucky enough to see the play’s revival live. While nothing beats a seat in the auditorium, the recording, now streaming on The National Theatre’s YouTube channel, does not diminish the quality of performance given. This run of Amadeus is, without a doubt, the finest piece of art I have ever seen in any medium. Plenty of works have brought me to tears, but none have done so through the sheer emotional quality of instrumental music. The war which Lucian Msamati’s Salieri wages against the young Mozart (Adam Gillen) consumes every fibre of his being. Such strength of emotional pain inevitably makes its way into an artist’s creative output (last year’s Nick Cave album or Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me are perfect contemporary examples of what I mean). The performance of this music by the Southbank Sinfonia, coupled with lighting designer Jon Clark’s rigging produces not only an aural, but also a visual representation of its emotional context.

Salieri is the old, classical world. Mozart, his 18th-century culottes placed in powder pink Doc Martens, is the punk rock Romantic. Salieri is a servant of God. Mozart is a servant of music. Just as Wordsworth argues in the preface to The Lyrical Ballads, the Romantic creative creates because that is what they do. Mozart is a composer and so he composes beautiful music whether in the form of operas and concertos for Viennese aristocrats or the anilingual choral classic Leck Mich I’m Arsch, a drunken party piece for his friends. His life of, wine, women, and syphilitic poverty is anything but beautiful, however. Salieri cannot fathom that his God, the God he believes is the source of his musical ability, could give such a gift to his ‘antichrist’.

Like the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Msamati slowly chips away at his character’s civility through a variety of expertly delivered soliloquies revealing him to be just as hedonistic as Mozart. The difference is that, while Mozart’s desires serve to corrupt his body, Salieri’s desire for fame corrupts his mind. Even at the end of his life, Mozart is still composing. Salieri, on the other hand, must live with the knowledge that he destroyed Mozart, at least in terms of social standing, until he cannot bear it any longer. The play is a confession on the part of Salieri all told, as he says in the first scene of the first act, the last night of his life. Are we, the audience, the Gods of which Gloucester speaks of, watching the characters on stage descend into madness and eventually die for our own amusement?  We enjoy watching the path to Salieri’s attempted suicide since we are transcendent of the play’s world. If there are Gods, their pleasures are not so removed from you and I.

Amadeus is available on The National Theatre’s YouTube Channel until July 23rd.

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