'The Royal Hunt of the Sun' returns to the National

As Peter Shaffer's 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun' is revived after 40 years, Paul Taylor joins him and his director Trevor Nunn backstage
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In 1964, Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun had the distinction of being the first world premiere of a new play by Laurence Olivier's recently established National Theatre. Since then, Shaffer has provided the National with three more of its biggest hits - Black Comedy, Equus and Amadeus. But his work has not been seen there since the coolly received premiere of Yonadab in 1988.

So, this revival of Royal Hunt - in a production by Trevor Nunn that launches this year's Travelex £10 season in the Olivier space - represents a return to the fold. As it does for Nunn: it's the first play he'll have directed at the National since he handed over the reins to Nick Hytner four years ago.

An epic drama about the clash of two civilisations, The Royal Hunt of the Sun uses a "total theatre" approach to tell the story of how 167 Spanish mercenaries managed to conquer the vast Incan empire of 24 million by capturing its sun-god sovereign. The buccaneering competitiveness of a society that deifies personal will is contrasted with the calm regimentation of a polity that places no value on individualism.

Each culture, though, unmasks the other's defects. The supposed civilising urges of the Europeans are exposed as the camouflage of rampant, destructive greed. Conversely, the social utopia of the Incas is revealed to be a form of mass spiritual enslavement.

The only common ground is that which is gradually discovered between Pizarro, the former pig-boy turned grizzled Conquistador General, and Atahuallpa, the captive Incan king.

The play is mediated to us by an elderly narrator who took part in the invasion as a hopeful boy. A gentle, immensely courteous figure, now pushing 80, Shaffer says that he finds himself in a roughly analogous position to this character as he looks back at his younger playwriting self and the circumstances of the first production.

One big difference between then and now, as Trevor Nunn points out, can be seen in the casting: "Gone are the days when it was all right to have white-skinned actors 'bowling up' to play the Incas."

In his production, Atahuallpa is portrayed by Paterson Joseph, who recently gave a stunningly complex performance at the Gate, Notting Hill, in The Emperor Jones, Eugene O'Neill's drama about a black American convict who escapes from prison, becomes dictator of a West Indian island, and then, on the run again, regresses into atavistic racial history.

Another change is that, given the play's mix of clashing civilisations, imperialistic wrath and the devastation conducted in the name of religion, the contemporary relevance is more pointed than when it was originally performed.

Five years ago, still resistant to the idea of revival, Shaffer signed a pledge than when the piece was next mounted, it would be at the National with Nunn directing. Any parallels with the occupation of Iraq or with violent fundamentalism will, however, be left implicit. "I didn't want the conquistadors in battle fatigues," says Shaffer. The language of the rough soldiers, too, has not been updated. "Of course, in 1964, there was still censorship. As a Bevin Boy, I'd been down the coal mines, so I was very well aware that every third word was 'fuck' or 'fucking', but I had to find an equivalent."

The one he chose - "pissing", which is used as rhythmic filler by the mercenaries - will stand in the new production. The alternative would sound anomalous and, argues Nunn, would steal the thunder of the climactic insult "bastard" - a status that is one of several features shared by Pizarro (Alun Armstrong) and Atahuallpa.

John Dexter's premiere production became an instant legend for its breathtaking stagecraft. With supreme economy and symbolic power, the great Spanish rosette that was embossed on the back wall of Michael Annals's set broke open, its exfoliation transforming the Christian cross into a blazing pagan sun. When the inlays of gold were ripped out of the petals, the resulting black frame graphically emblematised the desecration of Peru.

Shaffer reveals that when he and Dexter first read the script together, he attempted to interrupt Dexter as they drew near to the somewhat taxing line "the men climb the Andes" - a stage direction at the other extreme to Beckett's minimalist "Door imperceptibly ajar". Shaffer merely wanted to suggest what he had in mind. But, wrongly supposing that the playwright was about to back down over it, Dexter preempted him with, "If you take this line out, I'm not directing the play."

The current production, designed by Anthony Ward, will likewise revel in overcoming the impossible though a mixture of mime, music, ritual and dancing. "Trevor said that it has to be - not exactly austere, but simple. In fact, John Dexter told me that if he ever revived the play, he would make it less decorative."

One element retained from the original (though supplemented) is Marc Wilkinson's score, which evokes the unearthly cold of the Great Ascent with the eerie whine of musical saws.

Dexter was renowned for the razor-sharpness of both his tongue ("If you don't shut up, Arnold, I'll direct this play as you wrote it," he once told another frequent collaborator, Arnold Wesker) and his direction.

"Do you remember," the dramatist asks, "the wonderful way that he staged Equus [the Shaffer play about a horse-blinding youth and his psychiatrist] in a setting that was partly a boxing-ring, partly a witness box, partly a Greek amphitheatre?" The pair had an almighty bust-up, though, when Dexter wanted to be guaranteed an uncommonly large percentage of the play's global earnings before he would agree to direct Amadeus. Peter Hall took over.

But they were able to achieve a cathartic reconciliation when Shaffer heard Dexter was dying and phoned him from New York. "Before he hung up, he said 'I love you'. If you knew John, this was not a phrase he used easily..."

The playwright's stint as one of the Bevin Boys (men conscripted to replace miners who had gone to fight in the war) came between St Paul's School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he coedited Granta with his twin brother and fellow-dramatist, Anthony (author of Sleuth, who died in 2001). It was while bed-bound with an ulcer brought on by work in the Chislet coalfields that he read The History of the Conquest of Peru, the book by William Hickling Prescott that inspired The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

Shaffer's theatrical debut, though, was with Five Finger Exercise (1958), a play in which an angry young outsider upsets a well-heeled weekend in Suffolk. It was staged by John Gielgud, who, dropping one of his celebrated bricks, declared, "I wouldn't mind directing that. I've never done anything bourgeois before."

Shaffer recalls, "In that nervous, wonderfully modulated voice, Gielgud directed the actors to move on every single line. They looked like a team of performing mice on amphetamines. 'What on earth are you all doing?' he cried, when he ran the scene through. 'We are trying to do the moves you have given us,' said Brian Bedford. 'What on earth for?' protested Gielgud. 'Everyone knows I can't direct.' That was my first day of rehearsal in the English theatre."

Now on the further shore of his career, Shaffer is still hard at work on new plays. One is a "jigsaw play in the manner of Theatre de Complicite, with autobiographical elements. It's about creativity and the adventure of that." Contrary to one report, it is not a drama about him and his twin. He and Anthony were very close, but he does not see him as a subject.

His prime consideration at the moment, though, is The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play that its director, Trevor Nunn, describes as "a brilliant combination of historical investigation and human drama." After the many years of resisting a revival, Peter Shaffer looks extremely happy that he has relented.

'The Royal Hunt of the Sun', National Theatre, Olivier, London SE1 (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) previewing now; opens on 12 April; part of the Travelex £10 season. Media partner: 'The Independent'