This is the first time that Peter Shaffer’s play has returned to the scene of its original triumph in 1979. What a terrible pity that the author, who died in June at the age of 90, did not survive to see Michael Longhurst’s thrillingly fresh and imaginative revival of the piece. It takes the form of a fictionalised confession in which the dying Salieri, court composer to Joseph II of Austria, relives through extended flashbacks the story of his envy of Mozart and his furious quarrel with God. Salieri invokes us as “Ghosts of the future” to hear a saga wherein he foresees the warped immortality he will achieve as the nemesis of a genius.
The anti-hero's conscious awareness of posterity is built on here in ways that brilliantly amplify our sense of what he went through and of the emptiness of his temporally parochial pyrrhic victory. The Southbank Sinfonia are integrated into the world of the play to stunning effect in this regard. In modern black mufti, they can easily become a chorus that comments on the action in wheezing anachronistic discords or in clambering mime. The play dramatises the consequences of the momentous impact that hearing Mozart’s sublime music made on the “patron saint of mediocrity”.
Giving the musicians such a live central presence allows the production to present that impact as like a physical and metaphysical assault. There’s an extraordinary sequence in which Salieri is glancing through a folder of his rival’s sheet music. As he drops the pages one by one, unable to bear the beauty of what reads, the Sinfonia’s glorious performances of them get abruptly aborted but the mobile platform of steps on which they are standing continues bear down like an implacable juggernaut on the writhing and retching Salieri.
The superb Lucian Msamati has multiplied the moments of dry, deadpan, deflationary humour in the confidential outpourings of a protagonist who knows that he's the butt of one of the deity's crueller and more tasteless jokes – given unique responsiveness to Mozart's genius, irredeemably second rate, and mocked further by still ever-rising worldly success. Salieri's quarrel is not with Mozart but with God for speaking through a potty-mouthed upstart rather than through a diligent virtuous plodder like himself. He challenges God to strike him down for destroying genius. Msamati's wonderfully sardonic rapport with the audience signals the mismatch between the Luciferian dimensions of the project and the petty mean-spirited nature of the execution as he reduces his rival to penury through fatal career advice and blocked appoints.
Adam Gillen delivers the most moving portrayal of Shaffer's version of Mozart that I have seen since Michael Sheen played the role opposite David Suchet's Salieri nearly 20 years ago. Laughing like a hyena on speed and lunging round in his gold knickerbockers with all the decorous restraint of Rik Mayall from The Young Ones during a bad bout of Tourette’s, he gives you sudden glimpses of sensitivity and is on a wonderfully paced continuum with the desperate man-child whose battles to continue exercising his gift are almost too painful to watch in the final sequences.
The production assembles and reassembles itself – a virtuosic whirl of bits of scenery (design by Chloe Lanford), fantastic singers, excerpts from the operas that, in their aesthetic, become wittily and pointedly ahead of their time. Longhurst has let the air of today into Amadeus in bravura fashion. It is a pleasure to report that the 14th Travelex season at the National has got off to such a triumphant start.