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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Fame is long but death is longer.
---- Pizarro
The Royal Hunt of the Sun
Alun Armstrong as Francisco Pizarro and Paterson Joseph as Atahuallpa
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
The Royal Hunt of the Sun was the first new play produced at the National Theatre in 1964 by John Dexter. It remains in the memory of many who saw it as an amazing, ground breaking spectacle and it was with eager anticipation that Trevor Nunn's revival was greeted, especially with the casting of the brilliant Paterson Joseph as the Inca king, Atahuallpa. But forty years later, something is missing. Too often the production seems little more than a pale imitation of a Disney light parade to celebrate The Lion King. The play lacks a soul despite superb performances from Alun Armstrong as the world weary Pizarro and Paterson Joseph as the conquered native South American man-god.

The fault lies partly with Peter Shaffer's script which is not as good as fond memory would credit. Equus and Amadeus both of which post date The Royal Hunt of the Sun seem better constructed. Despite the fascinating story of the relationship between the Spanish soldier and the Inca king, parts of the play seem rather clunky and at three hours, it is overly long. Any parallels that the producers hoped to make between American neo-colonisation in the search for oil and the Spanish conquistadors' search for gold fall flat.

In forty years too, we have moved on in terms of scenery and special effects. After seeing some of the Himalayan sets for Tintin in 2005, we have trouble with an unsophisticated mountainside created out of flapping sheets. The picture in the programme of the single file Andean rope bridge has more dramatic effect than watching actors gingerly stepping along ropes like a drama school acting exercise.

Having got the grizzles out of the way, there are many enjoyable moments in this production. I liked the insights into Francisco Pizarro's history, biographical details like his being a foundling left at a church door. The scenes which are the most powerful are where Pizarro and Atahuallpa come together. These two are contrasted in every way. The soldier is experienced, the king innocent. Somehow the cynical, battle torn Spaniard seems really to believe the legend that the Inca king will be reincarnated when the sun rises at dawn. This pivotal moment is touching and full of pathos. Alun Armstrong looks ruggedly perfect as the gruff Pizarro and strikes a tragic note as he kills the man of whom he says, "Since first I heard of him I've dreamt of him every night".

But the full acting credits go to Paterson Joseph for the sensitivity with which he imbues the part of Atahuallpa. Sometimes he is playful when he questions the Christian mass, "He becomes a biscuit and then they eat him!" Sounds pagan doesn't it! Often he is witty with wonderfully expressive eyes. He is always engaging and by far the most sympathetic character in the play. I cannot get enough of this remarkable actor.

Malcolm Storry gives solid support as the narrator old Martin with Tristan Beint as his younger self. Old Martin concludes full of irony, " So fell Peru. We gave her greed, hunger and the cross: three gifts for the civilized life. " I liked too the flamboyant Venetian Commander of Artillery, Pedro de Candia (Richard Lintern) with his Italian competitiveness. There is a large cast but few of the Incas have parts worthy of their acting talents. Darrell d'Silva has great presence as the aristocratic second in command Hernando de Soto.

Trevor Nunn has deliberately underplayed the spectacle in this production and the drumming music and tinkling pipes are more monotonous than dramatic. There are cut out circles of light for the gold masked king to sit in and cumbersome gold masks for dancers to wear. The Incas wear red and yellow feathers but the effects are not extraordinary. The staging of the death of 3000 Incas does not break the suspension of disbelief. I did like the scenes early on where Pizarro selects his crew from his home town so that we get a picture of who these adventurers were who risked a perilous journey and the unknown in the hope of finding gold. We are also told how few the spoils were for the common soldier. The Church presence is led by the haughty Dominican chaplain, played by Oliver Cotton, and we learn that the Spanish motive was as much conversion to Christianity as to find gold. There is a breakdown which explains the class delineation of the army and of course of sixteenth century Spanish society.

In conclusion, if someone offered me tickets to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun again, I'd go. My expectations would be lower this time but I would go just to see the pure gold performances from Alun Armstrong and Paterson Joseph.

Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Paterson Joseph, Alun Armstrong, Malcolm Storry, Darrell d'Silva
With: Philip Voss, Richard Lintern, Gary Oliver, Tristan Beint, Bradley Freegard, Andrew Frame, Branwell Donaghey, Jim Creighton, Tam Mutu, Owen Oakeshott, Oliver Cotton, Paul Ritter, Ewart James Walters, Israel Aduramo, Ralph Birtwell, Bhasker Patel, Amit Shah, Micah Balfour, Natasha Bain, Nataylia Roni, Dwayne Barnaby, Martin Carroll, Douglas Scott Franklin, Daniel Lindquist, George Daniel Long, Andrew McDonald, Terel Nugent, Michael Taibi, Oliver Tompsett
Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Marc Wilkinson
Choreography: Anthony van Laast
Arrangements and additional music: Steven Edis
Running time: Three hours 5 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 10th June 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 13th April 2006 performance at the Olivier Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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