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Note-perfect: Michael Longhurst reimagines Amadeus

Note-perfect: Michael Longhurst reimagines Amadeus

Almost 40 years ago, playwright Sir Peter Shaffer debuted his new production Amadeus at the National Theatre – and a masterpiece of modern theatre was born. An absorbing exploration of artistic passion, jealousy and Divine Providence, Amadeus dramatises the relationship between musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and established court composer Antonio Salieri. Reviving this theatre classic in a new production at the National Theatre, Michael Longhurst (Philosophy, 2002) has created his own masterpiece. With a fresh and inventive interpretation, Michael’s ambitious production earned exceptional praise from critics and audiences when it premiered in early 2017. Returning for a hotly-awaited second run this spring, we caught up with Michael to discover his vision for Amadeus


Michael Longhurst

“Before I pitched Amadeus, I’d just had an incredibly creatively satisfying experience directing Simon Stephen’s Carmen Disruption, a contemporary deconstruction and reimagining of Bizet’s opera,” begins Michael. “We staged elements like The Crumbling of Europe using two cellists and an opera singer alongside actors’ monologues. The collision of art forms was thrilling. After that experience, I was looking for a vehicle through which I could upscale what I’d discovered.”

In Amadeus, a play which places rival composers centre stage, opportunities to explore the integration between art forms appear boundless. But staging a reimagining of a much-loved play, in its original venue, carries an inevitable weight of responsibility.

“If I’d been more aware of the production’s illustrious history when I pitched it, I would have been incredibly daunted,” laughs Michael. “Once the fiftieth person has told you it’s their favourite film, or that they saw Paul Schofield do it originally, you just have to stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve this time. Artistic Director Rufus Norris was incredibly clear – what are you going to do differently to justify us doing it again?   

“I knew I wanted the creation of live music to be central so I was determined to fully integrate the Southbank Sinfonia. Having an orchestra allowed me to present the very thing Salieri is so jealous of. We see Mozart’s genius in action. The orchestra is like a fast car that Mozart steers effortlessly through hairpin bends; Salieri wrestles control of it, only to crunch its gears. Watching the actor who plays Mozart actually conduct from on top of a grand piano is a beautiful thing."

Amadeus performance at the National Theatre


“The musicians have worked miracles to not let staging challenges compromise how they deliver the music. I was asking them to do something completely out of their comfort zone – learn swathes of music so they could come out from behind their music-stands and move through the space performing ensemble choreography like a Greek chorus. Their focus and discipline is very inspiring.”

Through an imaginative new approach, Michael has succeeded in bringing this iconic play to life for a new generation. Despite being set in the late 18th century, and developed for the stage at the close of the 1970s, the themes presented in Amadeus are still incredibly relevant for audiences today.

“Salieri’s obsession with fame feels incredibly resonant,” explains Michael. “I think we’re even more aware of fame’s destructive power today.” 

The idea of an unstable young genius, particularly in musicians, is something we are tragically aware of. Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson might be modern equivalents of Mozart

“I wanted the play to delve under the Rococo pomp of the time. Salieri conjures us – ghosts of the future – to be his last audience, so I crashed our contemporary period and aesthetic into his. It’s a musical suicide note, a stab at infamy, a performance within a performance – all set within Salieri’s head – so it didn’t need to be literal. I gender-switched characters and diversely cast roles to bring the play’s politics up-to-date. Mozart was a punk who overthrew the forms of his time and wanted to produce work for ‘real people’; I used that for my inspiration.”

Staging a revival of a classic play is challenging enough. But when that revival has itself been universally acclaimed, following in one’s own footsteps can be a unique experience.

“The pressure to deliver ‘a hit’ with something that has already been deemed one is intense. But to be able to explore a whole new style of production, and have the chance to develop it further for the second run, is immensely gratifying. Lucian Msamati is just astounding as Salieri, and I hope his presence will bring in a whole new audience.

Amadeus play at the National Theatre

“Audiences can expect a riotous evening that befits the proto-punk Mozart was, as well as a profoundly beautiful experience of his music. I’d never heard Mozart performed live before directing Amadeus – his Requiem brings me to tears. I also think the reflection on our mortality and acceptance of the (often mediocre) mark we leave on the world through sympathising with Salieri is powerful.”

Incorporating a 25,000 gallon flood into If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, the carcass of a bull in Carmen Disruption and an orchestra in Amadeus, Michael’s productions are always ambitious. So what’s next?  

“I love the mash-up of period and meta-theatrical modern machinery. I wanted to get a scissor-lift in Amadeus, with Queen of the Night sung from the top! One of my ambitions is to do Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, set in the lake.

But coming up next is my production of Tony Kushner’s musical about the Civil Rights era, Caroline, or Change, which is coming to London’s Hampstead Theatre this March.”

Amadeus is playing at the  Olivier Theatre from 19 January to 24 April, and in selected international venues through  National Theatre Live.