Has “Amadeus” stood the test of time? That depends on whether you find Peter Shaffer’s undeniably theatrical — and ultimately Oscar-winning — conceit to be so much high-style hokum or a compelling psychodrama that charts an enmity-laden path from mockery through to madness. Whatever one’s response, there’s no denying the play’s continued effect on an audience in Peter Hall’s Old Vic revival of his National Theater hit of 19 years ago, despite an Antonio Salieri from David Suchet that hits all the proper rhetorical notes without ever really stirring the soul. The verdict may be out on whether Shaffer on this occasion is closer to Salieri than to Mozart — a voyeuristic imitator of grand art rather than a purveyor of the real thing — but thousands of theatergoers won’t want to consider the question: They’ll be too busy feasting on the florid theatrical juice that the play (and Hall’s staging of it) then and now provides.
To his credit, Hall has in no way trotted out a replica of the John Bury-designed success that went on to storm Broadway, winning multiple Tony Awards. After a pallid and unevenly acted start, the production picks up momentum that reaches a startling peak with the unexpected bravura in the second act of co-star Michael Sheen as Mozart.
Until then, one is largely left admiring the subtle design coups of William Dudley’s glistening and ever-shifting set (gorgeously lit by Paule Constable), but Sheen lifts what could be a collective exercise in scenery-chewing into something mournful and even profound.
A curly-haired, fresh-faced imp, his Mozart is a scatology-obsessed, self-described “jackass” whose eyes are as alive to panic as his heart is to the poetry of aGod-given gift for music that just will not stop pouring forth. Is this to denigrate a supreme artist? In Shaffer’s hands, maybe, or so one feels, given all the infantile idiot-speak (“pussy-wussy” and the like) on offer throughout the play.
But in a performance completely unprepared for by his career to date, this young actor (Sheen played Robbie Ross in the film “Wilde”) announces an artistry all his own, rising up through the Brit-thesp ranks even as his Mozart collapses into an impoverished, and crushing, despair.
Sheen’s emotional tremulousness — his ability to expose, and then close off , the nerves behind the character’s definingly puerile giggle — is every bit the match of Tim Curry in the play’s 1980 Broadway premiere, which is intended as high praise indeed.
Elsewhere, devotees of the initial outings of “Amadeus” on either side of the Atlantic may feel a falloff both in performance (Lucy Whybrow’s Constanze sounds like a Cockney Melanie Griffith and has only one scene late on with which to redeem a thinly written character) and in the work itself — the latter notwithstanding Shaffer’s commendable desire to continue tinkering with a text that might have been assumed to be frozen for all time.
The first act, in particular, seems remarkably padded, the self-evident theatricality as stagey as it becomes scintillating later on. Sharing with us the recipe for his beloved crema al mascarpone, Salieri emerges less the embittered court composer to the Austrian emperor Joseph II (an amusingly officious Charles Kay) than a vaguely camp precursor — in the crowd pleasing sweepstakes, anyway — of Terrence McNally’s Maria Callas in “Master Class,” who, you’ll remember, interrupted her play to lament the difficulties involved in finding a proper place to have one’s hair done. And has anyone else, Tevye included, spent so much of a show talking to God?
By the time of his umpteenth appeal to a heedless deity, an audience may well find itself making appeals of its own, namely that Shaffer curb a love for ostensibly fiery arias — not unique to this play — that can be as hollow as their subject matter is hallowed.
Sure, the essential conflict of “Amadeus” takes place not between Salieri and Mozart but between Salieri and a God whose contempt for Vienna’s preferred hack composer is embodied — or so Salieri argues — in Mozart’s signature laugh.
But maybe Salieri’s direct appeals to Himself (and, by extension, to us) would carry more force if Suchet brought some of the slow-burning bite and rage that marked his remarkable London stand as the professor in “Oleanna.” Instead, the performance has “virtuosic” stamped all over it — and, indeed, prompted one of the few standing ovations I’ve ever seen in London for a straight play — but remains a shade too knowing to cut to the quick.
Or perhaps it’s just that the gifted Suchet falls into the trap built into the role whereby the actor playing Salieri responds first to the musical flourishes of his own rhetoric and only then to the lasting, albeit (for Salieri) spirit-destroying, music of Mozart.
That music continues to prove Shaffer’s greatest ally and his curse, since the numerous Mozart snatches (“The Magic Flute” premiere here is especially well handled) can make one wish for more of the master and less mouthing-off about him.
Here, again, Sheen comes to the rescue to depict a genius at wrenching odds with his own demeanor, who feels far more than his crude antics can ever tell. “My tongue is stupid but my heart isn’t,” he says late in the play, as a spellbound audiencepays heed to an actor who has finally arrived by laying bare a pure, if short-lived, talent that lies beyond words.