The late Peter Shaffer’s masterpiece, Amadeus, is a glorious play. It’s full of impeccable, evocative language; it plays like a symphony, swelling with fervour, ardour and vitriol as the tale intoxicates, horrifies and enchants. It requires a musicality and a rhythm that would be worthy of Mozart. The revival at the National Theatre is utterly misjudged, poorly acted and distractingly staged. There is joy in watching real musicians play Mozart’s music live, but not enough to justify this inept waltz where words give way to vulgarity and an excessive pursuit of cheap laughs. Tom Stoppard’s play might be playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory but the real travesty is on the Olivier Stage.

AmadeusI must have missed the Memo. There can be no other explanation for why my expectation of what theatre should be, at its core, is so far removed from the aims and motives of persons employed to direct plays at the National Theatre. I expect to be absorbed in what happens on stage, to understand it (at least in part) and to have empathy with characters, situations and themes.

But more and more, especially at the National under Rufus Norris, directors seek to alienate, to obfuscate, to reduce difficult concepts to silly, stupid ones. They seem to mistrust modern audiences to follow what is happening in a text; they want their own mark on everything; they want to interest young people any way they think they can. They seem to care least of all about letting a play sing.

If ever there was a text capable of singing it is the late Sir Peter Shaffer’s masterful exploration of mediocrity, vengeance and artistic passion – Amadeus. Revived in its first home, the Olivier Theatre, Amadeus is currently playing, having opened tonight. Directed by Michael Longhurst, who clearly did get the Memo, it’s an incoherent, passionless and, frankly, tawdry pantomime version which seeks greatness through cynicism. It fails. Salieri’s final blessing to all mediocracy seems an apt appraisal.

Longhurst is a director of great skill, capable of creating glorious theatre. Here, it looks like he wishes he was Katie Mitchell or Ivo Van Hove. The set is mostly absent. There are platforms and silly hanging items, the odd bit of furniture, a huge pianoforte which needs to be moved all the time and an unfeasibly young, unfeasibly attractive orchestra. In truth, the orchestra is the set here – and the players are moved around as though they were props and forced to engage in tiresome group movement activities which would bore a corpse.

There must be a point to all of this, one which completely escapes me. At one point, I wondered if Longhurst was trying to show the mechanics of art as Salieri and Mozart fence about art and artifice, as Salieri fights with God by way of doomed defiance. But Shaffer’s play deals with all that in the words. And, in any event, Longhurst’s bovine staging antics detract, never add, to what Shaffer has written.

AmadeusHaving the music which is crucial to the play, and which Shaffer specified be played, provided by a gifted orchestra is great. Terrific even. They make some glorious sounds. And some of the singing, even of the extra bits Longhurst has thrown in, is quite good, although none of it is as good as it really needs to be. But why do these musicians need to be draped over the stage like candy or satin, or huddled in groups in their civilian clothes as if waiting to leave for home while Salieri performs his final scenes?

It is completely alienating and it reduces the effect of Shaffer’s brilliant writing immeasurably.

The need for modernity, for “relevance” seems unquenchable. There are mobile phones, announcements over unseen tannoy systems, modern dress orchestral players – all pointlessly shattering the spell of the world in which the drama plays out.

But then actual drama is pretty thin on the ground here. There is no sense of Court intrigue, no sense of whispering and watching, so sense of entrenched grandeur against which Mozart’s idiosyncratic grit produces pearls.

Shaffer’s play imagines the rivalry between Court Composer Salieri and the upstart wunderkind Mozart. Mozart, full of exceptional musical power, can’t function socially (too many Dad issues) and Salieri, full of loquacious self-importance, can’t function musically. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s god-given gifts makes him turn against God, to wage a war against God to secure retribution. A Machiavellian dance, bitter and intense, follows, ending only when Mozart is dead and Salieri understands the enormity of the mistake he has made.

AmadeusLonghurst’s production refuses to engage with the fascination of Shaffer’s language, with the inherent musicality of the work. Music is always played even when it could be imagined. Cheap laughs are the preferred goal at every turn. Much is black and white, when nearly everything should be grey. Pretty much everyone behaves badly in some way in Shaffer’s text, but Longhurst seeks to simplify the complexities.

A inescapable pantomime sensibility pervades everything.

Adam Gillen plays Mozart as some absurd compound of Sid Vicious, Frank Spencer, Vyvyan and Rick from The Young Ones – with Tourette’s syndrome. As a result, it is not possible to care for Mozart, to love him as a bit of a rascal. Which is fatal to the dramatic potential of the play.

But there is no denying Gillen’s remarkable skill. He plays the part with total unflinching commitment, utterly owning every moment and making his entire performance seem whole. He maintains a tic with his mouth with incredible finesse, and his peculiar laugh seems unbidden and, therefore, realistic. He uses his voice well, too, and when Longhurst’s vision permits, manages moments of quiet desolation. It is impossible not to admire his considerable technical achievements.

He gets good support from Karla Crome (whose Constanze is really too 21st century common and strangely unemotional to really fly), Tom Edden (slightly too manic as Joseph II but still delightfully funny), Geoffrey Beevers (a mellifluous and divinely starchy Baron Fugue) and Hugh Sachs (a pompous Mr Toad-like Count Rosenberg).

AmadeusOf course, Amadeus has no prospect of working without a towering performance from the actor playing Salieri. Especially in the Olivier, where the spirit of Paul Scofield is still tangible, Lucian Msamati just does not cut the mustard. Longhurst’s misguided production does not assist, but Msamati does not have the heft in his voice to unearth the lyrical undertones, the venomous passion, the silky sonority, the quicksilver superiority.

The superficial comedy comes easy to Msamati and he can certainly do a fine line in indignation and Wicked Stepfather cruelty. But mugging, facile tears and prat falls are not enough to scratch the surface of this supremely mercurial character; nor are silly howls or hysterical bursts of near laughter sufficient to indicate the depth of Salieri’s intellectual and religious torment. Mastering the lines and wearing the costume are not enough.

Msamati is at his best in the scenes where Gillen’s Mozart is crumbling and the two have an undeniable chemistry of kinds. But in Longhurst’s vulgar production neither actor gets the chance to revel in the divine glory that Shaffer intended.

This is Amadeus dumbed down and deconstructed. What a waste.

Two postscripts:

One: Press night began with a surprise appearance from Rufus Norris and Nicholas Hytner, both of whom were there to salute the legacy of Howard Davies who died yesterday. Norris, dressed casually, and Hytner in a suit – both seemed, in their own way, Salieri to Davies’ Mozart.

Two: I sat between two amiable women. The one to my right, with many others, fled at interval. The one to my left, bright and young, confessed she did not like the production and wondered why it was trying to be cool. She wanted to understand the emotions, the motivations more. She seemed to be the very audience Longhurst was aiming for. She wanted more. Quite right too.

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Amadeus
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.