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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Royal Hunt of the Sun
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2006

Some plays improve with age, some remain constant, some are rediscovered for each generation, and some do not age well. Peter Shaffer's 1964 epic, alas, seems to fall into the last category.

What seemed, forty-two years ago, to be an exciting blend of poetry, spectacle and psychological-spiritual message now just seems tired.  Despite the talents of director Trevor Nunn and a generally first-rate cast, along with the resources of the National Theatre, the poetry seems overwritten, the spectacle tired and unimpressive and the insights old-hat.

That last is not entirely the fault of the play, but rather of the fact that Shaffer went on to write this same play over and over again in different guises - a limited man encounters a genius/poet/god and is compelled to destroy him, damning himself in the process.

Later variants on the theme would be called Equus or Amadeus or Shrivings or Yonadab, and at least a couple of those were considerably better than this version.

In this case the Salieri is Pizarro, Spanish conqueror of the Incas, and the Mozart is Atahuallpa, their god-king. With no real faith of his own, despite the nominal purpose of his expedition to bring Catholicism to the heathens, Pizarro comes to admire Atahuallpa first as a man, then as a believer in his own divinity, and eventually to half-believe in him himself, so that destroying the Inca is destroying himself.

I remembered that from forty years ago. What I had forgotten was how much preliminary stuff about organising the expedition and how much turgid talk about Time, Death, Honour and the like we had to sit through before we got to Pizarro's psychological-spiritual crisis.

And I couldn't have anticipated how shoddy and half-hearted all the grand processionals and battle scenes would seem - maybe we've just seen too much flag-waving and strobe lighting effects over the years to be as impressed as we once were.

And so the effect is a bit like the Emperor's New Clothes - for all the pretentious language and razzle-dazzle, the strongest impression this revival gives is how very thin and old-hat the material is.

The ever-reliable Alun Armstrong gives exactly the performance you would expect of him, of a rough, uncouth professional soldier just trying to get a job done, but the depth of Pizarro's spiritual torment is beyond his scope.

Paterson Joseph is attractively open and even humourous as Atahuallpa, Paul Ritter has a strong scene as one of the priests on the expedition, and such NT stalwarts as Darrell D'Silva, Philip Voss and Oliver Cotton provide solid support.

Tristan Beint doesn't seem boyish and innocent enough as the young interpreter Martin, but the biggest disappointment is Malcolm Storry as the narrating Martin-as-an-old-man. Apparently uncertain whether to play him as cynical or caught up in his own tale, Storry seems to have gone for boredom, as if telling the story was just an annoying minor interruption in the old soldier's day.

Many in the NT's audiences over the next few months will have studied this play in school. I fear that when they finally come to see it, they may wonder what all the fuss was about.

 Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Royal Hunt of the Sun - National 2006