Peter Shaffer's 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun was a landmark event in the history of the National Theatre. It was the first new work premiered by the recently formed company. And, unlike most dramas of the period where a trip across the drawing room to the drinks tray was the most arduous trek expected of the characters, this clash-of-civilisations epic sent a battalion of Spanish mercenaries on a stylised ascent of the Andes, junking all the trappings of naturalism and using the stage in the Shakespearean manner as a place where anything can happen by imaginative feat.
Expectations were high for Trevor Nunn's NT revival, which launches this year's Travelex £10 season in the Olivier - not least because the play's topical edge is arguably sharper now than when it was first performed. Sixteenth-century Spanish imperialism, with greed for gold masquerading as a Christian crusade, offers pointed parallels with the current adventure in Iraq and the violations committed in the name of democracy. These, though, are left not so much implicit as dormant in a production that is old-fashioned in stage-craft and style.
Two cultures are contrasted and equated in this story of how 167 mercenaries conquered an empire of 24 million by capturing its sun-god king. A problem with Nunn's production is that it does not highlight the dialectical nature of the drama. Where the great orb in the original production represented the interaction between the civilisations, here it's a static shrine for Paterson Joseph's superbly superior Atahuallpa.
Staged on a wooden disc, the revival resorts to tired techniques that make you feel that Complicite and artists such as Robert Lepage might as well have never existed in the interim between 1964 and now. Like a high-school drama class, the men sway and toil between blue-lit sheets to evoke the slog up the ravines. Naff strobe lighting flickers over the resurrecting waves of Incas who are struck down in the Great Massacre. Played by actors of colour, the Incas are given pronounced "native" accents, and the app-roach to them is more Lion King than Peter Brook. The lack of true astonishment, scenically and musically, is, well, pretty surprising.
The two principals are spot-on. The irony of the piece is that the conqueror, Alun Armstrong's Pizarro, becomes spiritually captivated by the conquered, Paterson Joseph's Atah-uallpa. The actors make the growing bond between the men moving and believable, even if there's also a whiff of The King and I and "Getting to Know You" about their playful engagement. The production gathers power towards the close - the pieta when the sun-god fails to rise from the dead communicates a desolate sense of loss. Beforehand, though, this Royal Hunt too often loses the scent.
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