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A Story About Ruin & Gold - 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun'

A Story About Ruin & Gold - The Royal Hunt of the Sun

“Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak ...”
- Shakespeare, Othello.

Time plays caliginous tricks. More than half a century after its premiere, it is hard to imagine how ground-breaking Peter Schaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun first appeared. His 1964 play about the Spanish conquest of Peru blazed a pioneering trail in its use of Total Theatre and exotic spectacle, as well as the demands it placed on the imaginative collaboration of an involved audience. Now that so much of what passes for modern theatre involves mime, music, and movement, what grabs the attention even more is its prophetic political prescience. While Shaffer's previous drama Five-Finger Exercise had leaned heavily on naturalism, Hunt displayed his subsequent prototypical themes and techniques - large-scale philosophical conflicts between contrasted antagonists and cultural values. In Hunt, this conflict is represented by 167 Spanish invaders led by Francisco Pizarro and by a subservient Incan empire of 24 million, ruled by Atahuallpa. Once in Peru, the Spaniards captured the Sun-God King and discover a totalitarian socialist culture built on absolute obeisance to the sovereign. Atahuallpa was held prisoner for a ransom in gold, which, once paid off, forced Pizarro to make a difficult choice between his promise to free the monarch or sacrifice him and save his soldiers. The plot expands this cultural conflict to include Pizarro's personal hunt for a "truth" or deity to mitigate the human condition of inevitable death.

While the play was a startling antidote to 1960s naturalism, what now seems more interesting than any Brechtian 'alienation effect' is Shaffer's depiction of the unrelenting and rapacious nature of colonial repression. "This story is about ruin and gold," says the old man who narrates the story, and what remains fascinating is the way Pizarro and his small band of sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores viewed the Inca civilisation as a source of imperial plunder. They were indifferent to its communal values, melted down its priceless treasures into liquid gold, and wielded Christianity as an instrument of power and domination. Drawing his facts largely from American historian William Prescott's 1847 Conquest of Peru, Shaffer underlines the nature of capitalist exploitation and colonial conquest. For many years, it was generally assumed that Prescott's work was authoritative and that he used a broader range of source material than any previous writer on the subject. However, the archeological and anthropological aspects of his work have been heavily criticized by historians since the end of the nineteenth century. Prescott, who suffered from poor eyesight, acute dyspepsia, and rheumatism, never visited any archeological sites in Mesoamerica and his understanding of Inca culture was not profound. It has been argued in his defense that, despite advances in archeological understanding and a reconceptualization of the nature of pre-Columbian society, his work remains broadly accurate and his elaborations on fact were due to a fundamental lack of source material.

Shaffer's provocative work first sprang to vivid life in 1964 at London's Old Vic Theatre, directed by the brilliantly inventive John Dexter, whose production that has remained the gold standard. Stage directions are not usually the highlights of a script, but it was a peculiarly laconic one that attracted Dexter to Shaffer's play. It read: "They cross the Andes." That line had been one of the reasons the play had been called unstageable by most of London's script readers. Dexter was thrilled by Shaffer's epic narrative about a band of Spanish mercenaries who conquered the Inca empire, crossing not just the Andes, but swamps and plains as well. Shaffer's ambitious script was all the more surprising since he was a relatively inexperienced dramaturge. His first play had enjoyed a respectable West End run, but Hunt was only his second and the first new British play to be produced by the National Theatre. Its success guaranteed Shaffer's future, as well as initiating a fruitful relationship with Dexter, who went on to direct his equally tricky plays Black Comedy (in which dark and light are reversed) and Equus (with a cast formed of horses). But the production had a wider significance, as Felix Barker noted in The Evening News - "What especially causes the heart to sing is that this time our National Theatre is not reviving a classic. It is presenting a new play by a young author, ungrudgingly, on a literally dazzling scale."

Having cast Robert Stephens as the majestic, transcendent husk of Atahuallpa and Colin Blakely as the grizzled, dying conqueror Pizzarro, Dexter rehearsed the cast in two halves so that Europeans would meet Incas on stage almost for the first time. Designer Michael Annals constructed a set that could suggest multiple locations and the ceaseless sweep of history. Its centrepiece was a huge sun, symbolising the Inca empire. The gold, made from hundreds of milk bottle tops and hammered down to make them shimmer, was gradually removed, leaving a dark, glowering hole. Milton Shulman in The Evening Standard described it as "trailing success behind it like a fizzing rocket" and praised "the intensity, maturity and intelligence of Shaffer's writing,” the "ultra-romantic events" that made up the plot, the play's "extraordinary urgency and relevance," and the “exotic, imaginative, tempestuous effect of the production,” which gave the sun-worshippers' world "an eerie, mysterious glow.” Barker inquired rhetorically, "In the whole history of pageant drama, has anything more ambitious been attempted? Has any other spectacle achieved such visual excitement, and ... so touched the historical imagination?" The key to its success lay precisely in those impossible stage directions - "Mr. Shaffer has not dodged one blood-stained, gold-strewn mile of the fantastic journey." Despite the critical acclaim, the production was recast when it transferred to New York, with David Carradine as the Inca king and Christopher Plummer playing Pizzarro. Perhaps the Broadway producers could not resist the spectacle of the Von Trapp patriarch playing the avaricious and predatory conquistadore.

A revival of Hunt opened at London's Olivier Theatre in 2006 - the National's first return to the work in forty-two years. With the playwright in the audience, Trevor Nunn (formerly artistic director and chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as artistic director of the National) led a cast of thirty-three in an impressive, though not flawless production. Straightforward realism is not sufficient to depict a band of conquistadors painfully trekking over the Andes, nor their slaughter of hundreds of natives. Stylized theatricality is required and was superbly realized by Dexter and Annals in 1964. Comparable theatrical magic was achieved in Nunn's version. The Andes were evoked through reams of billowing silk, suggesting perilous gorges and precipitous walls of rock, and the massacre of 3,000 Incas was a disturbing strobe-light affair climaxing in a wall of crimson cloth. Marc Wilkinson's original score was full of haunting pan-pipes, percussion, and bird cries. The fine script, overflowing with stimulating themes concerning human life, death, ambition, and honour emerged wonderfully expressive. Shaffer insisted that his play should not be refashioned as a cautionary tale about the invasion of Iraq (despite his ardent personal criticism of that conflict), and leaving any parallels between sixteenth-century Peru and modern warfare to be drawn by contemporary audiences.

Shaffer, who later went on to write Amadeus, also expressed his satisfaction with Nunn's casting. Alun Armstrong's Pizarro was a stocky slogger who found himself homo-erotically entranced by Paterson Joseph's muscularly fey and unearthly Atahuallpa. Armstrong gave impressive form to the former pig-herder, with his raspy, yet clearly projecting voice and uneven gait convincingly mirroring the Spaniard's painful life. Equally exceptional was Joseph, who played Atahuallpa with enormous élan and kinetic energy. Shaffer admitted that Joseph was unknown to him beforehand and not his first choice, but upon hearing him read, he enthusiastically supported his casting. Whether standing completely still or moving stealthily around the spacious stage, Joseph's clipped diction riveted audiences and the short, slim, athletic actor made the god-king's role his own. Shaffer elaborated that, because Joseph was black, Nunn chose to cast black performers in the other Incan roles as well.

Five decades after a premiere that launched England's fledgling National Theatre, the play still gives directors pause. Where it now seems most dated in its exploration of the growing relationship between Pizarro and Atahuallpa. Lacking faith himself, Pizarro finds in his fellow bastard some echo of divinity and a dream of the possibility of resurrection. Having reluctantly sanctioned Atahuallpa's death, Pizarro kneels before his lifeless body as if hoping he will rise again. But there seems something forced about Pizarro's transformation from blunt mercenary into vain faith-seeker, as if Shaffer were offering a thesis about the ultimate futility of a religion based on the miraculous. Even if the core relationship of the second half lacks the potency it once possessed, Shaffer's play still makes immense demands on theatrical resources. Only someone fearless and possessed of limitless ingenuity could confidently tackle his overflowing text.

Given the play's previous stellar production history and their limited resources, The Wellington Repertory Theatre has made a highly commendable effort that will no doubt prove one of the most audacious productions to hit the Wellington stage this year. Director Matt Todd has mounted a version of Hunt that is remarkably seductive, entertaining, and engaging, while his adventurous casting also makes clear that it is much more than a two-man show. It “challenges the traditional power dynamic of big, burly males and frail, diminutive women by switching this around,” explains sixteen-year-old Grace Medlicott, who plays one of the main characters. By using only women, the band of Hispanic brothers is transformed into a leather-clad, swashbuckling sisterhood, which effectively emphasises the latent sexual attraction between Pizarro and Atahuallpa and turns the masked Incas into an anonymous and mindless herd of male swine.

Catherine McMechan's powerful Pizarro is a cunning warrior - stocky, ruthless, and unafraid of appearing harsh. The gallery gets no smiles and her soldiery only the most meager commiseration. There is also excellent supporting work submitted by Matthew Darragh as the almost Christ-like Atahuallpa, Julia Harris as the mature and disenchanted narrator, and Madeleine Lock as a vituperative priest who represents the slippery evasiveness of official religion. Both the costumes and make-up are modern, yet entirely appropriate. Together, the entire cast embodies a tragic view of history, naked, godless, and unredeemed, a carnival of carnage in which pity is the first man (or woman) down. Todd has produced a validly exciting and novel version of Schaffer's play that forces the audience to re-examine the rules which have previously governed the drama and, having done so, pronounce them insufficiently elastic.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun opens on Wednesday 3/4 at Wellington's Gryphon Theatre, with performances running until 13/4.

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