A National Institution

A National Institution

1a24832ccc71a06e4f4672c5145d153a--theater-posters-anonymousI’ve been going to the National Theatre now since the year it opened in 1976. The first production I saw was Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (about time that was revived) and since then there have been many dramatic highlights along with one or two stinkers (Victor Hugo’s The Prince’s Play anyone?). I was reminded of the sheer breadth of the work done in the building when prior to seeing  a production I found myself browsing round their current National Theatre Posters exhibition. If you’re going to a production there anytime soon I’d certainly recommend getting there early to have a quick game of “How many have I seen?” But the real reason I was there was to see Amadeus. This was a play I’d first seen in 1979 (1979!) and was definitely one of the aforementioned highlights so I was looking forward to this revival with some anticipation. To me the National has recently gone through a bit of a downturn. Partly in its desperation to attract new audiences it has tended to alienate its core – at least that’s how I see it. So it was with high hopes that I once again took my seat in the Olivier auditorium to revisit a play I’d first seen all those years ago.

Posters of original and current productions
Posters of original and current productions

It can’t be often that I have been called upon to review a production that has already been granted a slew of four/five star ratings; it really does suggest that you are going to have a great evening. And so it was when I sat down in the Olivier auditorium last night for Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. First performed at the National Theatre in 1979 this production is a revival of a revival which appeared between late 2016 and early 2017. It was a complete sell out at the time and so, astutely, the National have brought back Michael Longhurst’s scintillating production for a glorious reprise.

As I am sure readers will be aware, the plot consists of the rivalry between court composer Salieri and the upstart crow Mozart. The former conceives an innate hatred of the latter and engineers his fall from grace and eventually his death – or does he? For this is, among other things, a memory play and we all know just how notorious that faculty can be. By making these claims is Salieri aggrandizing his own part in history as he struggles with being the mediocrity that he privately acknowledges himself to be?


The cast is universally excellent and of the less “senior roles” I particularly enjoyed Matthew Spencer’s Emperor and Christopher Godwin’s turn as the misanthropic Baron Van Swieten. A special mention also for Adelle Leonce as Mrs Mozart – Constanze. The scene in which she visits Salieri and he suggests “recompense” for advancing her husband’s career has real resonance in these post Weinstein times and I suppose that’s the point – thus it ever was! However, any production of this play stands or falls by the casting of the two central roles and, in both cases the 2016/17 production actors return to parts that now fit them like a pair of gloves.

Lucian Msamati is Salieri, at war with his fellow composer and with the God he feels has let him down. Well bedded into the role by now Msamati is a charismatic central figure and as an actor is certainly not the mediocrity which his character claims himself to be. He addresses the audience with a clarity of thought and diction that kept us hanging on his every word and is thoroughly convincing as both the old man in his wheelchair and his much younger past self.


Adam Gillen reprises the role of Mozart, a shambolic man child with a potty mouth and a tendency to throw tantrums when he can’t have his own way. Nevertheless he is the musical genius who has survived the march of time and, especially towards the end, Gillen makes him a sympathetic figure who dies tragically young  and who could perhaps have gone on to even greater things. Some critics have pronounced Gillen’s characterisation to be too infantile and accused him of over egging the pudding but I would humbly suggest that they are missing the point. As well as being the central figure of the play, Salieri is also the (unreliable) narrator of proceedings. And so we see Mozart entirely mediated through Salieri’s point of view. Just as he is in awe of Mozart’s music, Salieri is appalled by the young man’s behaviour and demeanour. So it is entirely right and proper, in my view, that Gillen plays Mozart to excess.

The real coup of the production is the use made of the twenty strong Southbank Sinfonia playing all the music live. Nor do they sit quietly in an orchestra pit or, as is more customary, find themselves relegated to a corner of the stage. They are front and centre throughout, often playing on the move and interacting with the cast – indeed they are part of the cast functioning as an orchestral Greek chorus and adding a real edge to the proceedings. The whole is topped off with half a dozen actor/opera singers who perform snippets of Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, et al. I’m no opera buff but the gentleman sitting next to me clearly was and at the interval declared himself “entranced” by these elements.


Magnificent use is made of the Olivier stage and for once there are enough performers to fill it; the recent production of Sondheim’s Follies took a similar tack and perhaps heralds a return to serious theatre as spectacle. Heaven alone knows what the wages bill for these two productions alone must have been! Lighting was suitably atmospheric and used to shrink the vast expanse of the stage when more intimate scenes were taking place. Costumes ranged from period (the actors) to modern (the musicians); particularly striking were Salieri’s golden outfit and Mozart’s pink Doctor Marten boots cleverly suggesting at the same time both the delicate and thuggish aspects of the character.

Shaffer’s play is rightly acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of 20th century theatre. I was lucky enough to see the original production with Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendall and Longhurst’s production certainly gives that a run for its money; indeed the thrilling use of the live musicians might even give it the edge. Salieri may repeatedly claim his mediocrity and as a narrator be questionably unreliable; I am very happy to say that this returning production is definitely neither.*

After a bit of a sluggish period it looks like the National is returning to its former glory days. The last two productions I have seen there have both been of exceptional quality and really made use of the space available. Here’s to its continued revival.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

3 thoughts on “A National Institution

  1. Wasn’t “The Prince’s Play” an adaptation, by Toby Harrison, of a Victor Hugo novel? In these sensitive Brexit times, I’d hate to “diss’ a poor Frenchman unnecessarily! Our memories of it are, sadly, similar to your own. We may even have seen it on the same evening, when Diane used to be able to get Travelex tickets and we went as a group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your recollection is entirely correct, sir – on all points. I remember it had lots of water on stage, it was written in dire rhyming couplets and that we all fell about laughing at the sheer awfulness of it. I think it was done to try and capitalise on the success of Les Mis; they shouldn’t (really shouldn’t) have bothered


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