Lloyd Evans

Just kidding

Plus: somewhere in the unsifted ore of A Homosexual’s Guide ... lies a great two-hour play

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Amadeus

Olivier, in rep until 2 February

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Hampstead Theatre, until 26 November

Amadeus by Peter Shaffer is haunted by its own antecedents. Viewers are apt to feel that a new production lacks the beauties they’ve seen, or believe they’ve seen, in previous versions. Director Michael Longhurst opens with a fusion of time zones. The courtiers are attired in silk curtains like proper 18th-century toffs, while the musicians on stage wear the baggy subfusc of a contemporary orchestra. Electronic cries of ‘Salieri, Salieri’ are broadcast through a Tannoy as if the tardy Kapellmeister were being chivvied from his dressing-room by an irate stage hand.

Early on we get the famous ‘voice of an obscene child’ speech, which is perhaps the most sublime piece of English prose ever written on the subject of music. Here the magnificent rhetoric is marred by an overloud orchestra and by the imperfect diction of Lucian Msamati (Salieri). He emphasises the concluding lines with hand gestures as if he were beating time to his own thoughts. Stillness and clarity are all that’s required to make this speech soar. Embellishments are hindrances.

Msamati is not quite right. His air of menacing duplicity is good. And he draws the crowd into his confidence with winks and subtle side gestures. But Salieri needs a sense of nobility, of tragic grandeur, if he’s to lift the play beyond the melodramatic. Msamati lacks these registers.

Mozart, another tricky role, is drawn by Shaffer as a boorish and irrepressible narcissist with an idiotic laugh. Actors are advised to reverse the most obvious traits of their character but Adam Gillen does the opposite and emphasises Mozart’s babyish stupidity, which makes him not just hard to watch but also impossible to believe. He prances around the stage twisting his limbs and contorting his face like a kids’ entertainer on crack. His silly costume — pink DMs and a blond perm instead of a wig — carries him further beyond the reach of our sympathy. His clowning creates distortions elsewhere. Constanze Mozart (superb Karla Crome) is a smart, earthy, understated beauty, but why would such a shrewd operator marry a honking maniac like Amadeus?

The show improves in the second half with Salieri prowling around the musicians on stage as they bash out Mozart’s latest masterpiece. The composer conducts his work from the piano (for once his gesticulations are apposite), while Salieri’s frozen grimace exudes hatred as he sees his meagre talent being overtaken by deathless artistry. The staging here brings out the horror of Salieri’s predicament brilliantly. Best of the supporting cast is Tom Edden, as Emperor Joseph, whose eye-catching comic gift should win him a starring role soon.

Hats off to Hampstead for producing Tony Kushner’s tricky 2009 play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. It runs for three and a half hours with two intervals. Kushner sets the bar high. Anyone daunted by terms like ‘17th-century problemism’ or ‘pseudo-Areopagites’ should stay away.

The central character, Gus, is a depressed communist patriarch who fears his life has been wasted and who spends his days translating Horace’s epistles and contemplating suicide. His first attempt (bath filling, veins emptying) brings his children back to the family hearth to dissuade him from a repeat performance. They soon fall to bickering among themselves. The interweaving plotlines are fiendishly convoluted. Gus’s$4-million home is up for grabs as soon as he dies. His gay son plans to forsake his lover for a rent boy. The sister (excellent Tamsin Greig) is still dallying with her ex-husband while her lesbian partner is expecting a baby sired by the second brother. A laconic aunt (scene-stealing Sara Kestelman) is an ex-nun and a veteran of the Maoist insurgency in Peru, who sits on the sidelines firing sardonic barbs at her warring relatives. A mystery briefcase discovered in a cavity wall may unlock further secrets.

At its best the play is like a classic novel, richly textured, full of uncertainty and surprise, and with a sprawling cast of quirky madcap characters who constantly stimulate and amaze us with their insights into love, jealousy, anger, self-loathing and so on. But the stagecraft is too naturalistic. The writer, abetted by the director Michael Boyd, gives the show a documentary feel with the characters talking over one another incessantly. Clashing conversations become inaudible. It’s a terrible shame. And so easily corrected. The epic central scene comes close to Chekhov in its scale, its humour and its psychological depth but the botched staging turns it into a barrage of noise, like a scuffle in a chimpanzees’ enclosure. Many angry play-goers stomped out at the interval following this scene. The closing act drifts into histrionic sentimentality and the author teases us over Gus’s suicide.

Somewhere in this heap of unsifted ore lies a great two-hour play. Rigorous editing would winkle it out. Starting with the title.