Friday, 12 May 2017

National Theatre Live: Amadeus

First released in February of this year in the UK, the National Theatre's acclaimed production of Amadeus screened earlier today at the Academy Theatre.

Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones) stars as Salieri, the court composer in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Devoted to becoming a famous musician in service to God, Salieri finds his good standing (and character) challenged by the arrival of young prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen). Jealous of the young man's talent, and aggrieved at his dissolute, childish nature, Salieri sees his appearance as a challenge from the God he serves -- a sign that he is not in divine favour.

Driven mad by his obsession, Salieri engages in a campaign to denigrate and destroy his rival, and thereby the deity that has deserted him...

 I first saw Amadeus 17 years ago when my high school put it on as their annual production. TO date, I have not seen the 1984 motion picture, nor have I read the play text. And to be honest, it did not matter. Neither did the three-and-a-half runtime (with intermission). 

Because this production is fantastic. 

I had heard about the National Theatre's Live productions for years, and this was my first time watching one. I had held off for a long time, because live theatre on a screen sounded like a terrible experience.

Theatre and film are completely distinct from each other, and one of the key distinctions is the power of the close-up. It is the divining rod, separating the mediums and the types of performances and stories that each can portray.

Far from the stilted, remote experience I was prepared for, the choreography of the performers, the minimalist but impressionistic, moving sets and mobile orchestra was captured perfectly. The camera-work was dynamic and -- most impressively -- completely unobtrusive.

The production itself is directed by Michael Longhurst, but whoever organised the filming strategy does a brilliant job of capturing the atmosphere of the production. Every cut to a new set-up feels completely appropriate, from the lingering close-up on Constanze's disbelieving face while Salieri tries to woo her, to the cut to the dramatic low angle to showcase the silhouette of the ghost during the production of Don Giovani, while Salieri, framed in the foreground, pontificates on the work's relationship to Mozart's own dead father. 

As the title character, Gillen is exactly what you would expect: thoroughly annoying. It's intentional, of course, and since the show is framed from Salieri's point-of-view, completely appropriate. From the older man's perspective, Mozart is a cartoonish collection of hate-able qualities, from his obsession with poo jokes, to his petulant outbursts, and, most annoying of all, his complete self-awareness of his talents (as both a musician and universal irritant). Gillen brings a childlike, punkish energy to Mozart, that highlights the juxtaposition between his contemporary nature and the stolid, fossilised world around him.

Caught between her immature, unfaithful husband and the scheming Salieri, Midnight Ramble spirit animal Karla Crome plays Mozart's wife Constanze. A welcome dose of common sense amid the madness, she essays a grounded portrait of a commoner thrust into an awkward, thankless situation. Simultaneously appalled and thrilled by Mozart, she makes for a believable counterpart to Gillen's manic portrayal, and adds a few fingers of cynicism to her scenes with Salieri. She sees through the old man's halting attempts to seduce her, gaining a sense of agency that I remember lacking from the high school production I saw. 

While they are both very good, the acting honours go to Lucian Msamati. 

Charting the character's arc from devout (albeit self-serving) man of god and music, to the hollow, self-loathing monster who destroys Mozart's life, Msamati is marvellous. While he handles the character's more extreme emotional states, he finds the wit and irony in the character, to make Salieri more of a relatable everyman (albeit an extremely gentrified one). 

Able to sense Mozart's talent, but unable to match it, Salieri could become a cartoon -- an evil automaton motivated by jealousy -- but Msamati keeps his hand on the character's pulse. We feel Salieri's pain, even as we are repulsed by his actions. 

The focus of almost every scene, Msamati is brilliant. Even as Mozart's work is brought to life around him, he remains the centre of attention -- a mere mortal helpless before the divine talent of his rival. 

A brilliant, dynamic production of Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus feels like a living, breathing experience -- an example of how to bridge two distinct mediums, without sacrificing the pleasures of either. If you have a chance, give National Theatre Live a shot. You won't regret it.

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