"Why is Opera important? Because it's
real-er than any play". So says the wildly frenetic Mozart early in Peter
Shaffer's "play with music" (and famed 1984 film)
There's no tricks to what is going on here - it's classic theatre done subtly and cleverly with no big showstopper, just using every strength of the theatre to its best advantage
The story itself is well known and the stuff of high tragedy - being built from many different displays of mental instability. Learned Salieiri's bitter jealousy at the more naturally talented young Mozart that leads him to swear revenge and destruction on both him and his God for displaying skills he aspires to have in order to take a place in society. The insufferable Mozart's childishly annoying petulance, desire to shock and fuck everyone. Both likely manifests of a want to be loved and to belong. Their needs spiral out of control leaving neither satisfied - but both actors in these parts so wholly ground their portrayals in belief that each moment of unravelling cuts right through us.
Lucian Msamati as Salieri gives a powerful performance as he narrates the story from the present and takes us back through the events of his initial meeting with Mozart where the first seeds of resentment quickly grow into a full forest of hatred. But rather than distance us by playing with the audience (plenty a nod and wink and direct question), director Michael Longhurst (who showed a very different demonstration of his capacity to make great use of a space in They Drink It In The Congo recently at the Almeida) has dropped in really small moments (a grappling of the hairpiece, a flick of the music sheets, having stage hands move Salieri from his breakdown at the end of act one back into his wheelchair as we leave for the interval) that he blurs the lines between breaking the fourth wall and letting us into his pain without seeming to mean to.
Msamati's stillness is played off superbly by the childlike-looking Adam Gillen as Mozart (sorry to seem facile but his outward childishness is a key to his character) - at first grating with what seems to be an impression of Rik Mayall c 1980; the high pitched screeching voice, flamboyant waving, hands on hips and innuendo. But such a comparison is lazy criticism. For this is actually a tautly wound performance of a fragile inner vulnerability that Gillen completely embodies at all moments, making his unravelling all the more painful to watch. By the end, you know that is real sweat drenching his skin.
The energy throughout abounds on a set that is more sparse than anything I've seen at the Olivier - yet it seems also more filled as wispy smoke, tight harsh lighting and the aforementioned ensemble orchestra smoothly move from playing characters or playing music to being an intrinsic part of building the claustrophobia that such madness naturally creates. From the tiny moment where a musician plays whilst lying on the floor almost like a dim light in a room of arguments. To the biggest theatrical moment of the night for me, where Salieri's jealousy of Mozart's talent turns to bitter desperation as the man crumbles downstage - whilst Mozart conducts his music with orchestra on an upstage platform that slowly comes towards and engulfs both his and our emotions. That was the moment I realised I was watching something very theatrically special.
Even though this was press night, for once I actually felt that the ovation rippled through the audience more naturally than I have seen for a while - and the bows seemed deservedly unending. There's no tricks to what is going on here - it's classic theatre done subtly and cleverly with no big showstopper, just using every strength of the theatre to its best advantage; from a single spotlight to the shake of a head of a cellist. Neither of which sounds unique and yet of such small gestures, great work is made. A truly fitting - thankfully not Unfinished - Requiem.