Monday, May 08, 2006

The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Up for a challenge,it seems (and when is he not?), Trevor Nunn has taken on the vast ambition of Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun. One look at the stage directions of this play and many would be at a loss; the scope and grandeur are stated simply on the page, but in practice sound impossible.

At the Royal National Theatre, a full house is granted rivers of gold, armies climbing the Andes, and a bloody sun, replete with god-on-earth. In this epic, sweeping narrative, Francisco Pizarro journeys on his famous expedition to Peru in search of gold and self-fulfillment. What he brings with him are soldiers, Catholicism, and a hefty dose of pride. However, we learned all of that in primary school. Shaffer has delved deeper into fact and crafted a grand account of the connected possibilities of such a history. It is a window into what we will never see, a clever speculation that sparks one's imagination.

Through the narrator, we are granted access to the voyage. Martin's memories wind carefully around the events as they occur, and his boyhood self participates in them, tragically naive to what his future self has learned about human nature. He is our guide through this journey, where men are men and depth of character is revealed gradually.

In this world of color, it isn't long before cultures meet: Incas and Spaniards confront each other for the first time. The Incas are butchered and their god, Adahuallpa is captured. In captivity, he and Pizarro become unlikely friends. The development of this relationship is the most rewarding aspect of the overall play, which tends to be long-winded and uneven. As I suppose is necessary in such a large landscape, certain events and characters are simplified, while others are granted a full turn at realizing themselves. Shaffer has taken the clear opportunities within the situation: those that are begging to be pulled out for longer passages of critique and comparison on obvious themes like proselitization and capitalism. Adahuallpa as the son of god would make a clear connection to any audience. It is hard to say what needs to be highlighted amongst so many vehicles for parallel.

The play stutters a bit, but builds in Act Two, as passions run high, and decisions must be made. Doesn't it just sound dramatic? It absolutely is. Every tactic seems to be used: swashbuckling battles, choreographed native dances, tremendous swathes of fabric animating the entire space...the list goes on. Bringing the past to life onstage, with all of the baggage of history, is indeed a mammoth task. What holds it together are the moments of real communication between characters, as in most plays. For such a wide view to be successful, the disparities between personal and cultural have to be smoothed. All in all, I salute their mostly successful efforts.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun continues at the Royal National Theatre. Part of Travelex Ten Pound Season.


Blogger Justin Kownacki said...

May I just say this sounds like something I'd enjoy seeing? Sometimes spectacle for the sake of spectacle is enough to grab my attention, though knowing there's a legitimate story and aspirations of depth beneath the surface, and that those yearnings are occasionally satisfied, is a great selling point for something all too rare in the theatre I've seen: an epic in both the physical and emotional sense.

Robert McKee mentions in his book "Story" that extrapersonal conflicts -- man vs. environment, man vs. society, etc. -- tend to work best on film, whereas theatre is better suited to interpersonal conflicts that require dialogue instead of guns to sort out the problems. Simplified a comparison as that may be, it's encouraging to see productions from both forms that seek to dispell the notion that you can only tell one type of story within that form's constraints.

9:49 PM  

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