Trust the play, not the playwright. Given that Peter Shaffer’s 1964 epic “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” is the tale of the 167 Spaniards who conquered the 24 million-strong Inca empire in 1532 by stealing its astonishing wealth, the narrator’s initial assertion that “this story is about ruin and gold” seems perfectly reasonable. That, however, is merely its historical backdrop. What Shaffer was really doing was creating the blueprint for all his key works: “Royal Hunt,” “Equus,” “Amadeus,” even his earlier, more old-fashioned “Five Finger Exercise,” all are constructed from the same theatrical DNA: “I Am My Own Twin.”
Fierce same-sex rivalry charges up all those plays, not to mention “Sleuth” the greatest hit of Shaffer’s late twin brother and fellow scribe, Anthony. Envy and late-flowering love between Spanish General Pizarro and Inca god Atahuallpa is all that remains if you strip away the boldly drawn cultural displays of “Royal Hunt.” Unfortunately, Trevor Nunn’s production is trapped beneath those trappings.
This has always been a play that aimed to make spectacle respectable, and in this production (the first in the National Theater’s Travelex £10 season this year), designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone largely deliver on an ambitious approach. Instead of being cowed by the vastness of the Olivier theater, they emphasize its scale.
Drawing on Atahuallpa’s belief that he is the Sun God, Ward places a giant wooden disc on a black stage opened up to amphitheater proportions. In the center of the giant back wall, a shimmering golden sun is inexorably revealed. Both shrine and shield, it’s a religious image of the Incas and, looming out of the darkness, the production’s defining visual image. Against that, Vanstone illuminates Ward’s vivid, flame-colored costumes and towering, flamboyantly feathered headdresses.
Shaffer tells his story via stolid narrator Old Martin (Malcolm Storry), who joins forces onstage with his younger self, a gung-ho young soldier — “It’s going to be glorious” — who joins Pizarro’s campaign to cross the Andes and win the unimaginable riches of the hidden lands beyond: modern-day Peru and North Ecuador. Shaffer is seriously concerned with conflicting moralities and beliefs of the two leaders, but he handles the exposition in so plodding a manner that you long for the dramatic cut and thrust of “Henry V,” another going-to-war-on-dubious-grounds play recently staged in this space.
Shakespeare gives auds arguments via characters, but, wearyingly, Shaffer merely proffers mouthpieces for positions. Oliver Cotton’s intransigent priest, for example, has nothing to do but state the Christian case whereby the empire strikes gold. The Incas inhabit a land where it is as common as wood, so the Spanish can “take from them what they don’t value and give them the priceless mercy of heaven.”
Where bogus theology comes, can a contradictory religion be far behind? Pizarro and his men find themselves facing an utterly remote civilization. This is the production’s biggest challenge. Nunn’s creation of a physical and verbal language for the Incas is characterful, drawing on everything from almost hieratic group wails to African-toned squealing and foot-stomping to the South American pan-pipes of Marc Wilkinson’s woodwind and percussion score.
The mix is sometimes queasy, but the actors’ dedication is never in doubt. Paterson Joseph is a notably lithe but fearsome Atahuallpa, revealing his power through the speed of his reactions. He ricochets between imperiousness and demented joy in a bizarrely consistent manner.
Nunn attempts to lend the play a unanimity of tone, but fails to disguise the fact that the ideas — rage at the rape of an empire, the clash of culture, the death cult beneath Christianity — now seem old hat. That’s partly because Shaffer’s language is not up to the task. There’s barely a moment of subtext, so his seriousness topples over into sententiousness.
Wit, too, is in painfully short supply. Down-to-earth bathos pops up in clumsy, chummy dialogues between common soldiers, but for large stretches the dialogue strains beneath the weight of uncharacterized imagery.
The dated tone is exacerbated by Nunn’s often outmoded staging. During the many longeurs, you wonder if the show isn’t some kind of comeback for ’60s and ’70s cliches: Parachute silk billows out to create not just the Andes, but a river of blood and then a pile of gold; actors in a clump leap from foot to foot on the spot to indicate horse-riding; a fight scene is done in slow motion beneath a strobe light.
The show only lifts into drama at the denouement. Pizarro has moved from despising his prisoner to loving him and his values, a transition made flesh by the two leads’ energy and conviction. Alun Armstrong resists the temptation to allow his grizzled Van Dyck beard and military costume to do the work for him. He keeps an engaging light in his eyes and conveys a permanent, burning hope. But unlike all the other characters, he’s at a singular advantage.
With all exposition finally done and dusted, Armstrong gets to inhabit Shaffer’s real subject: life transfigured by love. For the characters and, more worryingly, the audience, it’s too late.