The star of the National Theatre’s revival, streaming this month, talks about genius, unlocking characters and how Peter Shaffer’s play became an ‘orgy of artistic love’
The director Michael Longhurst has said that he wanted to show a Salieri who was not a classical villain. How did you approach the character to give him humanity and humour?
I knew the film and loved it and had also seen a production in Zimbabwe many years ago. When I sat down to read the script, what pinged out to me was that Salieri is a man who absolutely loves music. It is his lifeblood. The second thing was that in my own personal experience and the experiences of others I know, there is always that individual in your life [like Mozart] who makes you sit there, punching and kicking and scratching at the walls, saying: “How did they do that? How are they creating masterpieces when I’m creating stick figures?” So I could completely identify with Salieri in being both fascinated and disgusted by it.
You played Iago in Othello a year before this production. Was that role – of a man also eaten up by jealousy – preparation for this one?
The challenge in all of it is to find the weakest point in any character which, I believe, is how you tap into the humanity of that character without judgment. Tapping into jealousy in itself is very easy. It’s more difficult to tap into love for the victim of that jealousy; just as Salieri loves music, Iago loves Othello. I don’t think you can commit yourself to such a dogged path of revenge or retribution unless you feel a great love – from great love comes great hurt and hate. The hate is easier to access than the love and it’s more complicated with Iago.