Fresh take on Shaffer classic

Adam Gillen as Mozart in a scene from Michael Longhurst’s novel production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Picture by Marc Brenner.

The London National Theatre Live production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus – a play centred on jealousy and genius, showcasing composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – is to have four screenings at Cinema Nouveau cinemas in South Africa this week – at 7.30pm tomorrow (Saturday, March 4), 2.30pm on Sunday (March 5) and 7.30pm next Wednesday and Thursday (March 8 and 9). Screenings will be at Cinema Nouveaus in Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. BILLY SUTER reviews the film.

I HAVE been a fan of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus since I met and interviewed film director Milos Forman in 1984. That was when he visited Johannesburg to promote his Oscar-winning movie of the play – which took eight of the 11 statuettes for which it was nominated, including that for best picture, director and lead actor (F Murray Abraham).

I will always look on Abraham as the definitive Salieri, the court composer who, in Shaffer’s highly fictionalised account, was in constant awe at the massive talent of young upstart Mozart, but abhorred his arrogance, vulgarity and childishness.

Salieri, certainly in Shaffer’s play, became insanely jealous of Mozart’s fame and a talent that seemed to come so easily to the puerile composer, while Salieri had to work hard to achieve success which, by his own admission, came nowhere close to the genius that was Mozart.

Shaffer’s play, which was first staged to great success at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1979, then moved to the West End and Broadway, took the 1981 Tony Award for best play, and was adapted for the Forman film by Shaffer, who died in June last year.

The new production being shown as part of the National Theatre Live film series stars, as Mozart, 31-year-old Adam Gillen (of TV’s Fresh Meat and perhaps best known locally as nerdy Liam in TV’s Benidorm).  British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones) plays Salieri and Karla Crome (TV’s Misfits) appears as Mozart’s wife, Constanze.

It is an audacious, fresh production, quite sumptuous at times, imaginatively and fluidly directed by Michael Longhurst.

It employs 16 actors and six singers on a set featuring both a stage at the rear and a front, curved performance area that rises or lowers throughout the production for extra effect, most notably for excerpts from Mozart operas.

A novel and brilliant touch is that 20 members of the Southbank Sinfonia orchestra, dressed in black, constantly move between the actors while playing their instruments. They react on the sidelines or on the stage behind the actors, and often contribute to the action as extras.

I loved the look and the modern touches, and particularly enjoyed Msamati as Salieri. He has a strong presence, and one feels his pain as he deals with the rowdy Amadeus arriving in Vienna, where Salieri has the power to promote his talent or destroy his name. Seized by obsessive jealousy, Salieri then begins a war with Mozart, with music and, ultimately, with God and himself.

Lucian Msamati, who played pirate Salladhor Saan in TV’s Game of Thrones, in an altogether different role – as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. Picture by Marc Brenner.

The fly in the ointment for me is Gillen as Mozart. I have never been a fan and find him too unbridled in his lunacy at times, too over the top, more imbecilic than simply silly and loud. Also, his mouth constantly agape under a froth of blond curls adds to the irritation.

That said, his final scenes, when he is losing his health and his mind, are particularly well done.

The production also features Hugh Sachs as a smug opera-house director (Sachs plays effete Gavin Ramsbottom in TV’s Benidorm) while a great deal of fun comes from po-faced Tom Edden as the emperor, whose catchphrase, “There it is”, becomes a running gag.

Note that the film is a bum-number of note, as you will have to sit through pre-performance chit-chat, a short behind-scenes featurette and a 20-minute interval, which means you will only leave the cinema some 210 minutes after you arrive.

Watch the NT Live trailer of Amadeus at

Watch a video interview as the cast discusses what it’s like to perform Mozart’s music with Southbank Sinfonia at

Video interview: actor Lucian Msamati reflects on the challenges and rewards of playing Salieri in this new production of Amadeus at

NOTE: The next productions from National Theatre Live to be screened at Cinema Nouveaus in South Africa are Saint Joan (from March 18), Hedda Gabler (from April 1), Twelfth Night (from May 2), Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (from June 3), Peter Pan (from July 8), Salomé (from July 22), Angels in America – Part I & II (August 19 and September 2) and Yerma (September 23).

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