March 31, 2006: Shaffer, The Royal Hunt of the Sun

National Theatre, Olivier. Directed by Trevor Nunn. In early previews; opens April 12.

There has always been, in my experience, something naggingly superficial about Peter Shaffer. It seems a little grudging to say this, because I am held and well entertained by his plays. But I remember seeing the touring production of Equus and feeling that the development of the action was something akin to peel­ing Peer Gynt’s onion: it seemed, finally, all layers and no center. I saw the orig­inal production of Royal Hunt by the National Theatre in 1965, I think it was (it would have been during 1965-66, my first year in London after Princeton grad­uate school), and probably in the temporary quarters of the Old Vic, where the director, John Dexter, was mounting Olivier’s Othello. I may have these facts slightly wrong, but I still have the Othello program and may have the Royal Hunt program as well. (This was an early time when, I regret to remember, I had not yet begun chronicling my theatre experiences.)

In any case, I somehow have the persistent feeling of something superficial governing Shaffer’s work, and I came away with that feeling again last night, after what was, or ought to have been by most judgments, a fine production of the play, mounted with spirit and élan by Trevor Nunn, who has vast experience with musicals and spectacle, which he put to great use here. The costumes of the Spanish soldiers are mostly workaday dun, but those of the Incas are truly mag­nif­icent — gold, of course, and oranges and yellows. And the gold plates and statues and other objects that are brought into the “room” where the Inca is being held captive by Pizarro, as the price of his liberty, must have taken hundreds of hours in the properties lab to manufacture. There is even a great wheel, which takes two or three men to lift and roll. At the extreme up-stage, about 12-15 feet off the stage floor, there is a high reveal, an image of the sun, and the inner disc gradually lowers to show the figure of the Inca himself, dressed in the splendor that becomes the sun god.

So: no holds barred in this production. The forward part of the stage floor is a round wooden platform; I expected it to turn, in the course of the production (the Olivier stage is well known for its concentric turntables), but it did not. Instead, a smaller circular platform can be raised up at the upstage edge to form a more focused raked stage. It is used sparingly, through the production, but is employ­ed to good effect during the scenes — including the long last scene — between Pizarro and the Inca, Atahualpa. In short, the best that the National Theatre is capable of, in the way of physical staging and scenic effect.

There is a perimeter surrounding the central circular stage also, effectively delineating a separate acting area. It is used for the parade of gold objects, evid­ently burdensome, which are carried on and around a full semicircle; and used also, and most especially, by Old Martin, as the narrator-after-the-fact, telling us the story that we see enacted on the central stage itself. Old Martin is the charac­ter that enables Shaffer to offer us the older-and-wiser review of the Old World’s conquest of the New World, with all its attendant horrors. Old Martin’s task is to impose on us, gradually, a dawning sense of those horrors, even while he accom­p­lishes another, seemingly contradictory task: to display for us the extraordinary purposiveness of the Spanish conquistadores and their intrepid commander Piz­arro, and the extraordinary beauty and splendor of the Inca civilization. We can­not have the one without the other, it seems.

Within the scaffolding of this two-part plan, however, another thematic idea emerges, at something more like the center of the drama: the emergent love, broth­erly love, of Pizarro for Atahualpa, who from the beginning has been the object of conquest but who now, on closer acquaintance, becomes an authentic human being, interesting to know, bright-eyed, astute, and admirable in all ways. It is Pizarro’s agonizing situation that he is now in the position of being forced to kill, or allow to be killed, a person who has managed to make his life meaningful for the first time.

Now, Atahualpa, faced with his imminent death, is unfazed by it; for he bel­ieves that the Sun will not allow his death by so lowly and mercenary a force as represented by venal Spaniards. Threatened by being burned to death, he is per­suaded by Pizarro to be baptized a Christian; for this, instead of being burned he is, in an act of Christian mercy, garotted instead. He falls dead, in the center of the raised smaller circular stage. He has predicted that the Sun will raise him up again, for he cannot truly die. Pizarro and the assembled company of Spaniards and Indians wait for the Inca to rise, rejuvenated, once again. They wait. And wait. It is one of the longest intervals of undisturbed silence I can ever remember having experienced in the theatre. But nothing happens. Not even the magic of the stage can raise up the dead Atahualpa. The forces, Indian and Spanish, melt away into the darkness, leaving Pizarro to cradle the dead body in his arms, feeling the personal impact of the loss of his brother, in whose death he himself has acquiesced, over against which the amassing of uncounted gold ingots, the product of the melting down of the priceless gold artifacts he has acquired, is as nothing. And the lights go to black.

Well, we could have told Pizarro this was the way it was all going to turn out. It’s an interesting and dramatic idea, Pizarro and Atahualpa being brothers under the skin. But Old Martin’s cynicism from the first has alerted us to the fact that no good was going to come of this expedition, the climbing of the Andes and all. We see the Young Martin (played well by Tristan Beint) going through a Dis­illusioning Experience, losing his youth and innocence and ideals of chivalry, in the service of Pizarro and the Spanish King. But we have already realized how that’s all going to come out.

And so Shaffer’s attempt to distance his audience, dramatically, from what might have been a dangerously you-are-there, Cecil B. DeMille approach to the Conquest of Peru, tends to short-circuit the impact of the central drama here. We came to the theatre with our politics intact, and we know how disastrous, cultur­ally and morally, were the depredations of Old World conquerors of the New. So what, exactly, was the point of this elaborate exercise? What did we learn that was new or mind-expanding?

Some say that whenever Shaffer writes, he writes about his connection with his twin, Anthony Shaffer, author of Sleuth and other pieces. You can see this troubled affinity operating in the relationship of the psychiatrist and the young boy in Equus, and in the envy of Mozart’s genius by Salieri in Amadeus; and here also, in the Pizarro – Atahualpa connection. It makes for interesting dramatic art, but it somehow feels as if we are trespassing on private domain whenever we begin to reflect on it. In any case, there seems to be a large discontinuity, very evident in Royal Hunt, between the spectacular outer action of the play and the ostensible center, where private feelings between two archrivals lurk and seethe and are unable to be resolved.

Perhaps it’s this discontinuity — a sense of elements of the drama at odds with one another — that prevents the achievement of a wholeness to the per­form­­ance, giving rise to my nagging sense of superficiality. Too bad about this. I did have a very interesting time in the theatre, after all, and Patterson Joseph’s brilliant portrayal of Atahualpa was quite wonderful. Joseph has a superb body, muscular, well-honed, agile and smooth, most of which we saw in scenes in which he wore nothing but a loincloth. The Pizarro, Alun Armstrong, seemed to me deficient in the first act, insufficiently manic and propulsive in his determin­ation to go for the gold; but in the second act, as obstacles of various kinds mount and challenges multiply, he rose to the occasion. The generally formidable forces of the National Theatre were much in evidence, too, both on and off stage, includ­ing musicians — all of whom were just visible at the edge of the circular stage and dressed in golden orange Indian costumes. A nice touch.

So am I a “carping critic,” as an acquaintance of mine once accused me of being, when I complained about that Edward Machado play about a Pope’s stealing of a boy for Christ, after a Hartford stage performance? Why can’t I just relax and enjoy it all? And not ruin it for everyone else? he said.

Somehow I am not seriously troubled by this reflection.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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