Foreground Lucian Msamati - Antonio Salieri, background members of Southbank Sinfonia image by Marc Brenner
As I write this review, I feel something standing in the corner of the room. It is a bold presence - lurking, surveying, and waiting patiently. Perhaps if I stay composed (indeed, keep composing), it might show itself; here goes.
Lucian Msamati’s generous performance allows us, the audience, to empathise with even the most reprehensible aspects of this archetypal character, and reminds us – once again – of the universality of the human condition.
Oftentimes, it seems a disservice to reduce a great actor – or, indeed, a performance given - by engaging with the petty subject of nationality, ethnicity, or skin-colour. However, since the role of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s stage play Amadeus has been played by several well-known Caucasian actors (most notably Paul Scofield in the original 1970 NT cast, Ian McKellen on Broadway in 1980, and F. Murray Abraham in the 1984 movie adaptation) - and the real-life man himself was certainly ‘European of feature’ – the casting of black-British actor Lucian Msamati cannot go unmentioned. So there it is; the elephant reveals itself.
Whether the casting was director Michael Longhurst’s specific vision, or came about as a result of the National Theatre’s drive for diversity, Msamati reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (acting).”
And what acting!
Anyone familiar with Lucien Msamati’s work on TV, film, or stage will be aware of - not only the outstanding technical abilities he brings to any part he plays - but also of an intangible quality that only the great actors offer us: a mirror, held up to our own humanity (in all its aspects). His generous performance allows us, the audience, to empathise (nay, sympathise) with even the most reprehensible aspects of this archetypal character, and reminds us – once again – of the universality of the human condition.
But he is not alone in bringing this version of Shaffer’s fantastic treatise on mediocrity (how ironic) to life.
Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun (as the Greek chorus-like Venticello duo), and Karla Crome (Constanze Weber) also perform superbly in roles not usually portrayed by black players.
The lighting, and costumes are superb – as befits The National – but it is the staging that, at times, feels like a principal character. It is grandiose, functional, bare, and opulent – often at the same time. From one moment to the next, we get a glimpse inside an 18th century Italian royal court, a Venetian drawing room, or a flea-infested hovel.
Karla Crome - Constanze Mozart, Adam Gillen - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Image by Marc Brenner
All the time, the stage is home to the Southbank Sinfonia - these players being orchestrated in the fullest sense, as they become supporting artists, scene-movers, crowds, musicians (playing extracts from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, “Magic flute”, and “Requiem”), and even manifestations of the two principal’s respective demons. A truly wonderful use of both stage and extended cast!
But we couldn’t have a reading of Amadeus without Mozart himself; and this is where the production falls ever so slightly flat.
The lighting, and costumes are superb – as befits The National – but it is the staging that, at times, feels like a principal character. It is grandiose, functional, bare, and opulent – often at the same time.
Adam Gillen certainly exhibits the required shrillness, energy, and bowed physicality required. However, the lightness (playfulness) - conveyed by the actor in his opening scenes – does not give way to sufficient shade (pathos) as Mozart loses grip on his financial wealth, physical stealth, and mental health. Certainly, all of the tics (and antics) are present and correct, but constantly bowing to gravity – entertaining though it often is - does not, necessarily, add more dramatic weight (!)
This play has much to say about fear (of failure, mortality - of not being good enough), and its close cousins, hubris and jealousy.
It begs the questions: if we – the audience-members/the public - are merely ‘mediocre’, then who is to absolve us of this sin? If we are players/creators, then who will charge us to ‘turn audiences into gods’? If God is truly indifferent (as Salieri contends ‘til the bitter end), the answer – surely – is ‘ourselves’.
In the mouth of Lucien Msamati – in, what is a beautifully calibrated production - Peter Shaffer’s words might just help us perform this alchemy.