Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, National Theatre, London, 9th January, 2017

I  first saw Amadeus in the early 1980s in the London theatre that now seems to be the permanent home of Phantom of the Opera. I loved the play then and I love it still. I have heard people say it has an unfair advantage, Mozart's music, which it uses to play with the audience's emotions. But then the play is all about unfair advantages - or the perception that they are unfair at any rate.

Whether or not the plot has any basis in truth I have no idea, but for those who don't know it, the play presents the story of Salieri, the dominant composer in Vienna at the time of Mozart's arrival there. Salieri recognises Mozart as infinitely more gifted than he is and takes this as evidence of the unfairness of God. In this reaction, Salieri resembles the prodigal son's brother in his anger at not being favoured. He is in fact missing the point of the religion he thinks he has been serving - Mozart is Salieri's own personal Messiah and just as humanity decided to destroy Jesus, Salieri decides to destroy Mozart for being too good.

Poor Mozart - played really wonderfully in this production by Adam Gillen, he comes across as good in soul as well as good at music. Gillen manages to inject great poignance into the role by hinting at a seriousness and depth that his character has learnt to hide behind inanity, like a bright child trying to survive in the playground. He is completely guileless and so lacking in vanity - yes, he knows he is a very good composer, but that is not vanity, just honesty - that it never occurs to him that anyone else might be wracked by jealousy of his extraordinary talent. When he improvises on a piece by Salieri and suggests they both play around with it together, the thought that Salieri might be insulted never crosses his mind. They are both musicians, music is the thing and it is fun to mess about together playing music.  Perhaps this is what holds Salieri back from greatness - the fact that music is not the thing for him but merely the means to an end - that end being unrivalled success.

Anyway, there are plenty of things wrong with this production - it was unnecessarily cluttered and the decision to have Salieri played by an African was distracting, particularly as his two side kicks were also played by black actors, thus risking the narrative becoming one about black people feeling annoyed at being less talented than the white people in the play or, even worse, Africans feeling unable to match the cultural achievements of the white Age of Enlightenment. I suppose we are all supposed to be colour blind but I doubt any white actor will be playing Martin Luther King any time soon. And perhaps actually my objection wasn't about race but just about Salieri's style of (over?) acting.  After all Costanza, Mozart's wife, is also played by an actor who may not be entirely Anglo, (Karla Crome), but her performance is so incredibly moving that the thought that it was odd to cast her never crossed my mind.*

But I'm resolved to be positive in 2017 so let's leave quibbles aside and focus on the moving emotional core of the production - the cruelty that slowly destroys Mozart and robs the world of his gifts. The way in which Adam Gillen conveys the loneliness of true genius beneath the mask of a giggling clown is marvellous and the scenes he shares with Costanza as his health declines and his financial situation worsens are almost unbearably sad. It is a long time since I've sat in a big crowded theatre and felt the kind of intensity of attention these two actors managed to create the night I was there. It is even longer since I've sat in a theatre with tears pouring down my face. To inspire such an emotional reaction, live, onstage, without special effects or screens or any special technological frippery is a great achievement and revived my faith in the power of theatre, that ancient, magical form.

*Reading the programme later I realised that, if you go to the National Theatre under its current management, you just have to put up with their tedious "diversity" policies, which also presumably were behind the maddeningly pointless transformation of one of the male characters in Amadeus into a woman - in Vienna at the time of Mozart a woman would not have walked about in men's clothes and called herself a counsellor at the court.

But never mind - on the page of the programme headed "A Theatre for Everyone", Rufus Norris, the NT's boss, is quoted as saying:

"The NT has the responsibility and the privilege to celebrate this nation. The work we put on our stages, the audiences we play to, the staff, subject matter and areas of national debate should reflect and celebrate the diversity of the nation in terms of, for example, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and class."

The article goes on to explain that:

"Trying to shift perceptions of what theatre can be and for whom is not for the faint hearted .... To focus these efforts, the NT has set diversity targets for all faces of the operation and a report on their progress will be published on the NT website. The current 2016 figures show that the NT is making progress: 50% of all commissioned new work in 2015-16 was written by women, 30% of performers were from BAME backgrounds, which is also encouraging but the aim is to do better. The five-year Equality Action Plan states that by 2021 20% of the workforce will be from a BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) background. Disability targets will be announced soon and there is active discussion about how best to engage with the issue of sexuality."

I am against celebrating anything except birthdays and Christmas. I don't understand why the effort to shift perceptions is necessary, given most good shows at the National Theatre sell out extremely quickly. As for five year plans, heaven help us - and why have an aim to employ a greater percentage of so-called BAME in the workforce than exists in the population? The whole thing is dispiriting in the extreme.