This was my first encounter with this play (though I knew it by reputation). By the time the three hours was over I was puzzled as to how the work had attained that reputation.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the play, it fictionalises the relationship between Mozart and rival composer Salieri. In theory, it questions whether or not Salieri destroyed Mozart's career and finally murdered him (via the subtitle Salieri gives the piece of “Did I Do It”). Unfortunately, the play has no interest in creating any doubt on this subject. Not only is it clear from very early on that Salieri is bent on destroying him, but one could scarcely miss the processes by which he achieves this. This makes for a lack of dramatic tension. One way round this would have been if the play were to craft leading characters in say a Shakespearean mode so that one is gripped by their mental deliberations even though we are pretty clear what is finally going to happen but, as I'll explain, the play is not very effective in this regard either – or at least its effectiveness was not sufficiently put across in this performance. Pacing is also a problem, the drama moves forward too slowly, and the ending is unsatisfactorily drawn out.
The play, for all the flurries around the edges, is basically a two hander, and the central performances are not yet strong enough. The best individual performance is Adam Gillen's Mozart. I think he either overdoes, has been directed to overdo, or Schaffer overdid the idea of Mozart as self-centred, uncontrolled, filthy mouthed boy who never grew up. In the first half, particularly, it is too much on one note. After the interval, though, elements of genius and desperation start to break through and suggest complex reasons for that front which lend the performance real power. If Gillen could find ways to suggest more of those elements earlier on both performance and play would be strengthened. I suspect Mozart is played the way he is in the first half to emphasise the contrast with Lucian Msamati's Salieri. I last saw Msamati in the National's recent stunning revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom where he delivered a powerful, subtle performance. Here I'm afraid his performance is not currently on that level, though with two previews to go (when I saw it) it may deepen further. Partly it's a question of needing to convey more presence and authority – there's a problem, in relation to the play, when Mozart is tending to over dominate scenes where the text requires the power to lie with Salieri. But also, the performer needs to show us multiple sides – the face presented to Mozart, his inner confession, the old man telling the story – at present Msamati hasn't found sufficient distinction between them – I was particularly unconvinced by Mozart having to believe that Salieri is in fact his friend – this seemed to me too obviously not the case. All that said, Msamati is not helped by a couple of directorial/design decisions. Firstly, he's saddled with a curious Italian accent. The accents generally are a bit bizarre in this show – as well as Msamati's Italian, Karla Crome's Constanze appears to be a London cockney, the Vienna court seem to be mostly aristocratic British and quite what Mozart is meant to sound like was a bit of a puzzle. My suspicion is that this is intended to emphasise points about class but Constanze's working class nature, for example, which would seem to be implied by this isn't really clarified by anything else in the production. It is jarring that Salieri has the Italian accent but his two Venticelli don't. Ultimately, to my ear, the accent hinders Msamati's authority without sufficiently clear gains. The second issue is Paul Arditti's sound design more generally. Presumably to ensure they carry over the massed musicians of the Southbank Sinfonia most of the spoken parts are miked (one problem with this was a persistent background crackle to Salieri's lines across the evening). But the bigger issue where I was sitting (on aisle 2, midway back in the Stalls) was that spoken dynamic nuance was largely removed and most of the time I felt the performers were shouting at me. In a three hour performance this quickly becomes tiring.
Apart from the two principals none of the other characters are given much to work with by the text. The four sung roles are taken perfectly satisfactorily given the context. Crome's Constanze settles as the evening progresses and demonstrates a capacity for stillness in places in Act Two which the piece much needs. The various court members do the best they can with their limited parts. The two Venticelli (Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun) seemed a bit superfluous to me – what is happening is largely obvious without them pointing it out to us. I think it might have helped if the production did more to create a sense of an intimate relationship between them and Salieri – their meetings tend to occur in rather too much space on the vast Olivier stage. A similar absence of conspiratorial atmosphere troubles their exchanges to the audience, though again they're not helped by the shout effect of the sound design.
My previous encounters with Michael Longhurst as a director were both at the Almeida of two weak new plays Carmen Disruption and They Drink It In the Congo which the productions did not manage to rescue. Here it seems to me that he can't quite decide when the show is taking place. Chloe Lamford's design includes period trappings (cut out clouds, pillars, masks) but the orchestra look as if they've wandered across from a performance at the Festival Hall and I did find myself wondering whether Mozart's era really saw people wearing such garish outfits (they have a tendency to make characters excessively ridiculous). I've seen other directors struggle more with the open nature of the Olivier, and he avoids overuse of the revolve, but the intimate scenes do feel a bit adrift in the space (various directors under Norris have had this problem in both the Olivier and the Lyttelton). His direction of people is solid enough but rarely finds that electricity in the small gesture or touch that, as I've had occasion to say before, is one of the keys to truly great theatre.
The Southbank Sinfonia under Simon Slater give a good account of themselves especially given that the Olivier acoustic is not especially well suited to Mozart, and there are one or two magical moments, most notably the finale of Figaro (indeed it was so much so I found myself wishing Salieri would shut up and let us listen in peace). The orchestra also deserve credit for throwing themselves with gusto into the variety of other tasks Longhurst gives them. Timpanist Beth Higham-Edwards deserves an individual award for playing a whole glockenspiel sequence (I think it was) while walking the length of the Olivier stage.
Early in Act Two there's a moment when Schaffer has Mozart explain a difference between opera and play. Mozart is fantasising a quartet involving four members of the royal court – the playwright would have to allow each of them to speak in turn whereas the composer could have them all singing at once while making sure that the audience never lost sight of an individual line. It's a fine advert for the magic of opera at its best but it also, perhaps unwittingly, exposes the weaknesses of a play that is really only interested in two people, and doesn't succeed, at least on the evidence of this performance, in getting at their complexities sufficiently to sustain that interest over a long three hours. A few rose to applaud at the end, I was not among them. For me this was another in what has been a line of rather too many mediocre evenings in recent times at this venue.