Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre is based on the legend that Antonio Salieri, composer to the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, murdered Mozart. This legend was created by Salieri himself on his death-bed in 1825. Deeply jealous that God should have chosen to speak through “the voice of an obscene child”, rather than through him, he took his revenge by destroying Mozart’s career at court and reducing him to destitution and starvation. Mozart was only 35 when he died penniless.
Salieri is always fully aware of his own lack of talent. “I am,” he said, “the patron saint of mediocrity.” After Mozart’s death, he went on to even greater fame, but he knew his work was worthless. He lived long enough to see Mozart’s operas universally admired and his own operas (some 40 of them) become extinct.
Salieri was created at the National Theatre in 1979 by Paul Scofield, who said he found King Lear far less taxing. The play lasts a good three hours and there is a lot of dialogue to speak. Lucian Msamati grows into the part. Michael Longhurst’s production is notable for placing the emphasis on Mozart’s music. Six singers and the Southbank Sinfonia share the stage with the actors, and the musicians and are expected to act and contribute physically as well as musically to the drama. There is a great moment when Salieri is reading Mozart’s score and is overwhelmed by the sublime sound which we, the audience, can actually hear and which persuades Salieri to declare war on God.
In presenting Mozart as precocious, immature, conceited and unbelievably vulgar, Shaffer takes his inspiration from Mozart’s notoriously crude correspondence to his family. Adam Gillen, gape-mouthed, has all the unabashed and irritating bravura the role requires and more.
I should perhaps point out that The Red Barn (also at the National Theatre) has nothing to with the sensational murder in the Red Barn in Suffolk in 1827, which caught the imagination of the public to such a degree that there were plays on the stage even before the murder trial was over.
This Red Barn is definitely not a Victorian melodrama but a 20th-century psychological thriller, a study of sexual obsession, jealousy and violent impulse, written by Georges Simenon and now adapted by David Hare.
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