Ewart James Walter
Peter Shaffer’s epic play of conquest was first performed by the National Theatre in 1964. A lavish telling of the story of Spanish General Francisco Pizarro and his capture of the Inca God-King Atahuallpa, it still feels ambitious and different. And though stylistically it occasionally shows its age, its closing scenes have a timeless capacity to engage and move.
The Royal Hunt Of The Sun is an unapologetically theatrical play. The first half, depicting the Spanish army’s trek (in full armour) through the Andes and the subsequent massacre of unarmed Incas, is all song and spectacle. Director Trevor Nunn makes full use of the large Olivier auditorium; scenes interlace, actors fill every inch of the stage – and occasionally the aisles – and music and mime play a large part in the proceedings.
The techniques of physical theatre are now fairly commonplace, but in a more evolved form than what we see here. The early scenes are incredibly overloaded; the musical accompaniment – all panpipes and birdcalls – distracts from, rather than compliments, onstage events, and the massacre scene when it comes, with its strobe lighting, slow-motion mime and use of a billowing red cloth to symbolise bloodshed, feels rather dated and more than a little naff.
Things are pared down in the second half, to better effect. Concentrating on the building friendship between Pizarro and the captive Atahuallpa, the play ceases to bombard the audience and allows an intriguing and ultimately moving relationship to form between the two characters. The scenes of the two men discussing each others beliefs and cultures, initially with incredulity, then with growing understanding, are the plays most gripping.
Alun Armstrong gives a very engaging performance as the conflicted Pizarro, a man with a duty to his men but also a growing bond with his prisoner. Paterson Joseph, as Atahuallpa, gives his character a necessary other-worldly quality without impacting on his humanity. His abundant onstage charisma is such that, whether draped in a feathered cloak or dancing around the stage in a loin cloth he never fails to convince.
Royal Hunt is narrated by Malcolm Storry, playing an older version of Pizarro’s young, nave aide Martin, but its an unnecessary device, as the emotional meat of the play is more than provided by the friendship between these two men.
There are obvious contemporary parallels that can be drawn from this play, but Nunn’s production chooses not to hammer them home. Wisely he concentrates on Pizarro’s agonising plight, as it becomes clear that he cannot free Atahuallpa, as he has promised, but must instead have him killed.
The Sun King believes that he is immortal, that death cannot touch him, and Pizarro allows himself to hope that this is true. The final scenes, where Pizarro stands amid the black-clad and wailing Incas waiting for Atahuallpa to rise again with the morning sun, are as moving as they are striking and strange.
At nearly three hours, Royal Hunt may be a long slog that initially feels past its best, but nothing quite matches those haunting last moments. As a result the play makes a very welcome start to this year’s Travelex 10 season at the National.