The next time you have a bad hair day and think that nothing in your life goes according to plan, you might like to spare a moment's thought for Atahuallpa, sometime ruler of a vast empire along the western seaboard of South America. Having just beaten his brother in a power struggle for control of the Inca Empire, a population of 24 million passively at his feet, and the firm belief that if he were to die he would be restored to life the very next day by his sun god, Atahuallpa must have thought he was sitting pretty. But when a motley band of Spanish turned up on Atahuallpa's doorstep he mistook their leader for a fabled 'white god' come to give him a blessing, and in the events that followed Atahuallpa lost enormous amounts of gold, his empire and ultimately his own neck. One of the all-time great blunders, I should think.
The capture of the Inca Empire by the Spanish is an astonishing and intriguing story. In many ways it has more in keeping with the realms of fantastical fiction than factual history. With what military commanders today would regard as a mere scouting party, Francisco Pizarro led 167 Spanish Conquistadors through jungle and over the high Andes in full amour, captured Atahuallpa and slaughtered several thousand of his troops whilst suffering little more than a scratch or two themselves, and then ransomed the emperor for a massive roomful of gold. And when the ransom had been paid, Pizarro and his Conquistadors garrotted Atahuallpa and took over the empire almost at a stroke.
Playwright Peter Shaffer first became mesmerised by this story of driving greed, brutality and audacity when he read William Hickling Prescott's 1847 book entitled 'The History of the Conquest of Peru'. It was to be an enduring fascination for Shaffer that resulted in his play 'Royal Hunt of the Sun', first produced at the National Theatre in 1964. Some 40 years later, the play stands up extremely well to scrutiny, continuing to fascinate and intrigue in this new production, directed by Trevor Nunn. And the obvious parallels in Shaffer's play with topical events give it a modern edge which can't have been entirely overlooked in the decision to give the play a new airing.
In many respects this is an awesome revival that provides a riveting evening of theatre. The staging is impressive without being in any way gratuitously excessive. Neither Nunn nor the National are strangers to extravagant productions, but here Nunn and designer Anthony Ward have struck the perfect chord in balancing the opulence of Atahuallpa's court with the epic nature of the natural setting. For example, when the Conquistadors set out to cross the Andes, Nunn uses simple swathes of white material to bring us the snow-capped Andes to superb effect. And later in the show, he again uses material to simulate the gold hoard being melted down and running like an enormous river. But there's certainly opulence in the costumes of Atahuallpa and his chief ministers, and the golden objects which shuttle across the stage as the ransom hoard piles up, are suitably impressive if obviously fake.
We first encounter the illiterate 'bastard' Pizarro in Spain, and we're immediately struck by the ordinariness of the man, who looks more like an innkeeper than a General. But there's much more to Alun Armstrong's Pizarro than you might think. No lover of the church or the authority of the Spanish crown, Armstrong presents us with a man who's no stranger to bloody battlefields and clearly understands his role - 'Soldiers are for killing, that's their reason', he says - but yet he also has the humanity to view the horror of war as repulsive. What sets him apart and makes him a great leader is his ability to motivate and endure. In all, it's an exceptionally fine performance which convinces us that a man like this could undertake such an astounding, if not mind-boggling, enterprise.
Contrasting with Armstrong's Pizarro is the rather camp and ethereal Atahuallpa played by Paterson Joseph. Sporting a shaved head, and a golden robe, Joseph's small but muscular Atahuallpa is also a complex persona. He soon realises his error in identifying Pizarro as a god, and astutely offers what his foe most desires - gold. Like Pizarro, Atahuallpa is a fighter and they discover an affinity which traps Pizarro in indecision when the rest of the Spaniards demand Atahuallpa's death. Joseph's pronunciation and delivery clearly underline the gulf separating the two peoples, symbolising the collision of different civilisations and cultures.
Shaffer's play is narrated by Old Martin, ably played here by the excellent Malcolm Storry, who interjects to provide background as well as to move the story along since it covers a period of over 4 years between 1529 and 1533. There's also fine support from Philip Voss as the interfering Royal Overseer, Tristan Beint as the naive Young Martin, and Oliver Cotton as the merciless Dominican chaplain. But then it's a fine cast all round with formidable direction as we've come to expect from Trevor Nunn, with the bonus of some haunting music and spine-tingling sound effects, as well as some splendidly evocative lighting.
Inevitably, we're left sympathising with Atahuallpa, but I'm not sure how much compassion he actually deserves. After all, he was not exactly lacking in the 'mean' department having just fought a bitter war against his own brother in which some 100,000 of his subjects lost their lives. But there's no doubt that the Inca population lost a great deal after being conquered by the Spanish. As one of the Conquistadors admitted in 1589 'The realm has fallen into such disorder that it has passed from one extreme to another. There was then no evil thing, but today there is no good, or almost none'.
Thankfully, civilisation has moved on from the times of the Conquistadors. With our highly developed sense of justice and morality, we wouldn't risk destroying a civilisation to get our hands on a small amount of natural resources, would we?
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A spectacular theatrical epic." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Old-fashioned in stage-craft and style." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "While the play was a startling antidote to 60s naturalism, what now seems more interesting is Shaffer's understanding of the imperialist instinct in which the conquest of the Incas becomes a metaphor for modern Iraq." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Lumbering production by Trevor Nunn, full of empty displays of ritual, dodgy choreography and naff mime sequences" BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There’s much to admire in Nunn’s use of a bare, round, wooden stage with plenty of gorgeous costumes but a minimum of props."
Production photo by Catherine Ashmore