Wednesday 14 June 2006


After a weeklong heat wave, the sun is gone and we are back to the more acceptably British combination of grey skies, rain and mugginess.

There was, however, plenty of solar brilliance at the Royal National Theatre last evening where we saw the revival of Peter Shaffer’s ‘The Royal Hunt of the Sun’.

The central performances sharply, even starkly, contrasted: Alun Armstrong as the world-weary, earth-bound Pizarro, haunted by death; Paterson Joseph as Atahuallpa, the life-radiating, air-borne child of the Sun for whom the concept of dying means no more than a sunset followed by a sunrise.

Polemic and spectacle are constantly competing for mind and eye in Trevor Nunn’s production which is resplendent in shimmering feathers and gilded trinketry and swathed in excessive cascades of billowing parachute-silk: blue-white for the Andes, gore-red for blood, ingot-yellow for gold…

But Shaffer’s dialogue dances and sparkles, not just with one-line epigrams (‘Fame is long. Death is longer…’) but also with profoundly simple observations on the human condition that span continents and centuries:

“Everything we feel,” says Pizarro, “is made of Time. All the beauties of life are shaped by it. Imagine a fixed sunset: the last note of a song that hung an hour, or a kiss for half of it. Try and halt a moment in our lives and it becomes maggoty at once. Even that word ‘moment’ is wrong, since that would mean a speck of time, something you could pick up on a rag and peer at…”

And the questions raised by the play remain as sharp as when they were first asked in 1964. Questions, on a human level, about trust and betrayal and, on a global scale, about political greed, expansionism and imperialism and Christianity’s enduring talent for absolving those who invade, kill and rob in the name in the One True Faith.

[Image: © Royal National Theatre]

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