The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Peter Shaffer
RNT Olivier
(2006)

Production photo

It may not be too difficult for the politically aware to work out why the National Theatre's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner and the play's director, his predecessor Sir Trevor Nunn, felt that a revival of The Royal Hunt of the Sun was timely.

The 42-year-old play that featured Robert Stephens as well as a young and unknighted Michael Gambon first time around was the first new play premiered by the National Theatre. It is set in Peru in the 1530s when Francisco Pizarro made his final trip to the New World.

He was travelling under the flag of Spanish (and Catholic) imperialism and was happy to take war to an innocent country if that was the price of untold quantities of gold. Somehow, his team of 167 men would eventually subjugate a native population of 24 million and pillage their land.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see the parallels with a more modern jaunt away from the same Continent to Iraq and who knows, another to Iran, with the ostensible intention of removing a dictator but the real one of opening up resources of today's black gold, oil.

This story of the 63 year-old Pizarro's conquest is narrated some 40 years after the events by Malcolm Storry as the man who at that time was his 15 year-old page Martin, played as a boy by Tristan Bent. He was recruited on account of his courage and ability to read and write and proves invaluable both to his master and the audience.

The recruitment process for the trip brings together a gang of chancers and ne'er do wells, perhaps the 16th Century equivalent of a gang of travelling football hooligans. The two most malevolent are almost inevitably Philip Voss as King Carlos V's pompous representative and, even worse, a Dominican friar who would happily slaughter untold numbers in the name of his religion, played with relish by Oliver Cotton.

After a hard trek across the Andes, portrayed on a bare stage in a lovely piece of physical theatre, the Spaniards led by Alun Armstrong's Pizarro with Darryl de Silva as his right-hand man, reach a Utopia in which remarkably, every member of the community seems blissfully happy.

The most spectacular moment of the play is the unveiling of Paterson Joseph's Atahualpa, a man whom all of his subjects believe to be a God of the Incas and "Son of the Sun". He appears out of an eclipse - not so much the Man in the Moon as the Man in the Sun - complete with gorgeous ceremonial headdress.

In no time, a battle of wills and religions commences that can have only one outcome. This is presaged by a spectacular, strobe-lit slaughter of 3,000 natives.

Shaffer then introduces a more human element as Pizarro and Atahualpa meet and begins to understand each other's nature and culture. The latter's dignity as a God is not assisted by the decision to use an accent that is too close to Neddy Seagoon to be taken seriously, with facial expressions that are sometimes of a similar ilk.

Pizarro also unwisely makes a promise that he will release the Son of the Sun from captivity, provided that a room can be filled with gold. Inevitably, a procession of men bring more valuable metal until he has to fulfil his commitment or welsh on it.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun presents two cultures which, like the golden artefacts, eventually reached meltdown with tragic consequences. There are few surprises in this play and three hours seems excessive for the material, despite generally solid performances and some enlightening history lessons that Messrs Bush and Blair might well choose to ignore.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher