It’s 37 years since Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus was first seen on stage and it’s now widely accepted as a modern classic. Now Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen are bringing the play back to its original home in London. And this time there’s an orchestra too.
The film version of Amadeus, which won eight Oscars in 1984, came out just before Adam Gillen was born.
At the story’s heart is the jealousy composer Antonio Salieri feels towards Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in whom he recognises the genius he knows he lacks.
“Probably it was my first proper introduction to Mozart. I thought how amazing the character was as played by Tom Hulce. And I really enjoyed the colours of that world and all the music.”
In 1979 the play had been a huge hit for the National Theatre in its new home on the Southbank in London. The scheming Salieri gave Paul Scofield one of his greatest roles; Mozart was Simon Callow, then aged 30.
Shaffer, who died in June this year, was more comfortable writing melodrama than most of his contemporaries – but he also brought cheeky humour to the story.
Audiences adored the show. When it transferred to Broadway, with Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, it ran almost three years.
But those productions could only use Mozart’s gorgeous music in recorded form. The new London staging has a live 30-piece orchestra.
Lucian Msamati, brought up in Zimbabwe but now making a big name in Britain, first saw the play in Harare. He says he still hasn’t got used to the thrill in London of the Southbank Sinfonia playing as he plays Salieri.
“It is a gift to an actor. But we’re a team and we integrate everything we do. There are wonderful opera singers with us too. Michael Longhurst (the director) is pulling it all together and I think it will be a very special event indeed.”
Until now Gillen, born in Manchester, has probably been best-known as beautician Liam in ITV’s ripe and raunchy comic drama Benidorm. In 1979 Shaffer annoyed some lovers of Mozart by portraying him as a brattish and at times foul-mouthed young man. So will Gillen’s be a different take on the great composer?
“There’s an element of precociousness to the man. He’s incredibly irreverent in an aristocratic court of the 1780s hemmed in by etiquette and by form and structure. He’s exciting and freeing to play. But Mozart in the play is not a two-dimensional dandy. There’s always a raw passion for his music and he has real guts. He lives and breathes music: he’s not a delicate or feather-weight figure.”
Gillen says the first weeks of the rehearsal process included an introduction to classical music. “For the first time I really understood the dramatic structure and the skill which went into a masterpiece by Mozart – or by Bach or Beethoven.
“I think a lot of modern audiences find classical music too challenging but it’s like a play: you have to meet the writer half-way and if you don’t make an effort you won’t get much out of it.
“Having the orchestra there is amazing. You always have to concentrate on what you’re doing next as an actor – but just to listen close-up to something like The Abduction from the Seraglio is great. But it’s the extracts from Don Giovanni I really engage with. Mozart could articulate something entirely through sound in a beautifully intricate way.”
Amadeus is returning to its original home of the 1100-seat Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, where today it can take advantage of the major advances in stage sound since 1979. Msamati says Shaffer wrote as someone who loved and understood great music.
“He created a play which is at times incredibly operatic, even without its music. It’s unapologetic in its scale and its relish of language. There’s always a burning urgency in the main characters. I know it’s going to appeal to a 21st Century audience ready for something which shows great truths writ large.
“Audiences want something with, shall we say, some stones in its trousers.”
Gillen bursts into giggles at the turn of phrase.
Both actors find the relationship between the men fertile territory. “And the jealousy is not all one way,” thinks Gillen. “In many ways Salieri has things which Mozart would like to have: the position at court and the respect of those around him. The connection with Salieri has elements of a father-son relationship. At times they’re like warring brothers and at other times there’s a softness between them. The play is so epic we cover so many aspects of humanity.”
But Msamati says Salieri knows that his is a far smaller talent. ‘”Let me use a footballing analogy. It’s like the playmaker for Barcelona B playing alongside Lionel Messi. The playmaker may be an excellent and talented footballer but Messi turns it into an artform: he makes everyone else look ordinary. But Salieri is the only one in the play who knows that God’s appointed is among us – and it’s an agony for him.”
Shaffer, unlike most modern playwrights, relished direct address – when the actor appears on stage and speaks straight to the audience. Lots of theatre professionals consider the technique embarrassingly antiquated.
But Msamati admires what Shaffer made of Salieri’s monologues.
“There is a moment when Salieri has this speech: ‘I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends – and I from legends created only the ordinary’.
“Those lines are quite simple but they’re also magnificent. The extended bits of direct address to the audience are a challenge but they’re also a joyous privilege. When we’re running through the gears of the show it’s my responsibility, with those speeches, to keep the ball in the air. If I have an off night it’s going to affect everybody. With this role I need to master the art of always being where I should be mentally – or appearing to be. Otherwise the rest of the team can’t fly.”
Amadeus is playing at the National Theatre in London. It will be seen in cinemas around the world on 2 February 2017 as part of NT Live.
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