An Interview with Simon Slater on ‘Amadeus’ at the National Theatre

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Image credit: Marc Brenner

We catch up with actor-musician and composer Simon Slater to find out more about 'Amadeus', the new play at the National Theatre about one of history's most turbulent musical geniuses.

“Our reception to music is just one of those weird supernatural things”. Olivier Award nominated actor-musician and composer Simon Slater has written over 300 original scores for theatre, film and TV. Slater is currently the Musical Director of Amadeus at the National Theatre. With the aid of the twenty-piece Southbank Sinfonia, six opera singers and a twenty strong cast he brings the music of Mozart to life on stage. London Calling caught up with him to discuss this epic play based on one of history’s most turbulent musical geniuses.

London Calling: The title of musical director is so broad. What is your role in this production?

Simon Slater: I’m not really a musical director at all. I’ve worked as an actor and a composer all my life. Musical director for me says somebody who waves a stick around in a pit in the West End. That’s not me, although here’s a job with at least three quarters of the score written by your man Mozart. I’m looking after a twenty-piece orchestra, six opera singers, twenty actors who have to sing and Paul Arditti, the sound designer. They are all such different creatures. I speak actor, because I am one. I speak musician, because I am one. I don’t speak opera singer very well but I’m learning.

I’ve tried to pull out the narrative of what is happening in the music. It’s in relation to what is happening on stage and what I imagine is the story of the music itself. It’s not about whether it’s the right or wrong tempo or whether you’ve changed the chords, it’s about what you want to say with the music.

LC: How faithful are you staying to the original version of Amadeus first performed at the National Theatre in 1979?

SS: Here’s this iconic play with a huge amount of iconic music mentioned and the script specifies what we hear. I saw the original version with Paul Scofield as Salieri and Simon Callow as Mozart when I was at college. There was only a single musician who played the pianoforte at one moment in the show. The rest of the music was pre-recorded. This play has only been done with live musicians on stage once before with actor-musicians at the Wilton’s Music Hall. Live musicians performing on stage in this play is such a big and new thing. I have twenty players on stage; the director Michael Longhurst and the choreographer Imogen Knight are moving them everywhere, getting them to do all sorts of weird and wacky things so the players hardly ever sit down. They’re positioned in really difficult places, playing together in the dark with the actors talking across them. It’s quite a challenge.

LC: You have written additional music for the show. Have you emulated Mozart’s style or deliberately moved away from it?

SS: Because we’re in the theatre I didn’t want to make it Mozart’s greatest hits. It’s much more than that. I’ve tried to put an arc of music, singing and sound across the whole play. You don’t have a scene then music then a scene. It all melds. There’s a lot of music in the show, and a lot of it is mine. I’ve written modern stuff really, and I have an orchestra to play with so I’ve taken some of Mozart’s themes and put them on their head or disguised them. I love Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the American Minimalists, and I adore film music so my score is rather cinematic. All the additional bits I’ve written are to try and keep the sound world and music flowing.

A lot of the play is underscored with music played quietly underneath the dialogue. It’s very hard to underscore with Mozart’s music because it is so busy and there’s a lot of notes. It’s easier with his darker stuff like the Requiem because in the theatre we’re used to that sort of drama and emotional pain but most of his work is so bright and pulls your ear. I haven’t really tampered with the Mozart pieces but there’s a lot going on audio-wise throughout.

LC: Amadeus is, in part, the story of the most famous music ever created. Did this mean there was more pressure put on you than in other productions?

SS: If your question is ‘Am I nervous?’ then the answer is yes! But music is a wonder. When talking doesn’t say what you want to say, you have to sing or make music. This play is doubly potent because it’s full of music, and means different things to different people. If you put that amount of music in a play it taps into us all at a very deep level. My job is to put lots of different musical layers in to access what is actually happening at that deeper level. I think audiences experiencing this play go beyond the response of ‘oh it’s Mozart, it’s very good’ or ‘the musical director has messed around with Mozart’ to a deeper reaction that is touching and rather painful at a primeval, emotional level. Our reception to music is just one of those weird supernatural things.

Amadeus opens at the National Theatre in the Olivier Theatre on 26 October with further dates to be announced. National Theatre Live will broadcast Amadeus to over 650 cinemas across the UK, and more internationally, on 2 February 2017. For more information and to book tickets visit the National Theatre online.