A Fresh Take on the Past: Amadeus @ the National Theatre

Amadeus is a play that’s all about storytelling.

The narrative begins with an elderly Antonio Salieri addressing a ‘future audience’, claiming to have been responsible for the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rumours are heard passing through the streets of Vienna. Could his claims be true, the people ask? The action that follows is the story of Mozart’s career from the perspective of Salieri.

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The elderly Salieri (Lucian Msamati) addresses a future audience, surrounded by the Southbank Sinfonia © Marc Brenner

The design for the production embraces the notion of the past being recreated for a present-day audience. The set is made from wooden scaffolding fronted with 2D painted representations of 18th-century architecture. Shell-shaped footlights – an instantly-recognisable sign of an old, elaborate theatre aesthetic – are processed in by actors and positioned onstage in full view of the audience. Stage hands frequently orchestrate scene changes while the lights are up, and a costume rail can be seen at the side of the stage throughout the performance. The world of the play is very clearly fabricated before us: the goal is not to create a realistic illusion that the action is taking place in 18th-century Vienna, but to emphasise that the production is a (very clever) piece of 21st-century storytelling.

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Perspective scenery behind a scaffold set, coming together to create an immersive environment © Marc Brenner

Most characters are clothed in sumptuous 18th-century clothing: the production features a glorious quantity of brocade, embroidery, corsetry, dress-coats, and intricate headpieces. These extravagant ensembles are peppered with 21st-century accessories, however. Mozart’s fabulous formals are paired with a roughly spiked hairstyle and Dr Martens boots (pink during the first half, and black feat. miniature portraits during the second). Constanza (Mozart’s wife) dons Minnie Mouse ears for a party scene, and Teresa (Salieri’s ‘rigid’ wife) is characterised by her distinctive pointed glasses. Members of the Southbank Sinfonia – an established London-based orchestra that acts as an onstage orchestra-cum-chorus in the production – were unquestionably modern throughout: their black concert dress and conspicuous use of smartphones at particular points in the action set the group apart from the historical setting of Salieri’s story.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen): combining the 18th and 21st century through costume design © Marc Brenner

My favourite element of Chloe Lamford’s design, however, is the brilliant manipulation of 18th-century staging techniques on the Olivier stage. Perspective scenery – where the illusion of a 3D space is created on a flat surface – is used to indicate scene-specific settings as the story of the play unfolds. This approach to communicating setting was a crucial feature of stage design across Europe during Mozart and Salieri’s lifetimes. The lucky audience member sat square-on to the centre of the stage could happily believe that performers were stood before a space much larger than the confines of the stage allowed (see the photo of Salieri before Amadeus’ perspective scenery, above). Viewers with less-good seats would miss out on the illusion, but could nevertheless glean useful information about the play’s setting from the detail in the image(s).

The incorporation of perspective scenery into the design for Amadeus offers the 21st-century viewer a realistic insight into the appearance of, for example, a decadent 18th-century ballroom. But it does so using techniques that would have been used in the original stagings of Mozart’s and Salieri’s operas. While highlighting the fact that the world of the play is entirely a fabrication, crafted for the benefit of Salieri’s ‘future audience’. COOL, RIGHT? The meta-ness goes a step further at the end of the production, where a section of The Magic Flute is performed as a play-within-a-play using all of the same design techniques that we’ve seen being used for Amadeus itself. Brilliant.

Metatheatricality: a section of The Magic Flute is performed using the same design tricks that’ve been used throughout the production © Marc Brenner

What’s the significance of all this?

Longhurst’s Amadeus is a fantastic example of how historical dress and settings are constantly reinterpreted and reimagined by directors and designers. The layering of period-specific details with those of other periods is common practice in theatre, film, and TV.

Take a look at previous approaches to designing Shaffer’s play as a point of comparison. The 1984 film adaptation of Amadeus features a Mozart with hair of a style befitting the 1980s more than the 1780s, and frothy lace cuffs and neckties feature heavily in all three iterations of the play depicted below. Compared with the sharp lines and satin sheen of Lamford’s 2016/17 costumes, these 80s interpretations of 18th-century fashion look well and truly dated.

The representation of the 18th century in the current National Theatre production says a lot more about us, now, than the play’s historical setting. Our relationships with historical periods, events, and people are always changing, and so are the ways in which we craft and reimagine stories. How does Mozart exist in our present-day imaginations? How do we now perceive the culture and environment of an 18th-century European court? What parallels can be identified between Salieri’s story and our own experiences? Most significantly, where do the boundaries lie between truth, history, and fiction?

At the end of Longhurst’s Amadeus, the company take their bows in modern-day ready-to-go-home clothes. ‘It blew the whole thing, really, didn’t it’, I heard an audience-member complain as I queued to leave the theatre. Nope. This is a perfect end to a production that explores the notion of storytelling in the 21st century, masterfully manipulates layers of design to great effect, and offers a bang-up-to-date interpretation of Shaffer’s play.

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Tom Hulce as Mozart in the 1984 film adaptation of Amadeus
Salieri (Paul Scofield) and Mozart (Simon Callow) in Peter Hall’s 1979 production (left), and Salieri (Ian McKellen) and Mozart (Tim Curry) in the 1980 Broadway production (right)

PS – My PhD research is all about this sort of thing. I focus specifically on 21st-century stagings of Shakespeare that incorporate Elizabethan and/or Jacobean aesthetics, but I’ll be thinking a lot about the layering of different period details in stage/costume design more generally over the next few years. Reading suggestions and research chats are always very welcome!