All that glitters

Theatre - A clunky tale of conquistadors and Incas fails to strike gold, writes Michael Portillo

Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Inca empire is fascinating history. He achieved it with fewer than 200 men, who were as brave as they were ruthless and greedy for gold. The decision by the emperor-god Atahualpa to allow Pizarro to march unhindered on Inca roads across Peru ranks as perhaps the most bizarre and catastrophic military blunder of all time. Pizarro's ambush and kidnap of Atahualpa in the city square at Cajamarca is among the most treacherous deeds ever committed. But Pizarro then took betrayal to new heights when he executed Atahualpa, even though the fabulous ransom agreed for his release had been paid in full.

Those extraordinary events (and specifically William Hickling Prescott's mid-19th-century account of them) inspired Peter Shaffer to write The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which was first performed by the National Theatre more than 40 years ago.

But Trevor Nunn's resuscitation of the play serves only to show how poorly it has aged. It opens with a narrator, Old Martin, who with a lightness of touch worthy of the Ancient Mariner introduces us to the play's leaden moral message of "ruin and gold". He points to his younger self (played by Tristan Beint), who was page to Pizarro. That kind of time-shift was once considered cutting edge, but now it seems merely clunky.

Some of Shaffer's lines are so bad, it is incredible that Nunn has allowed them to survive. "You could almost touch the silence." Yuck. Or try this: when the Spanish ask how long it will take to march somewhere, the locals say: "One life of Mother Moon" and Pizarro's interpreter helpfully translates "one month", because we in the audience would surely never have decoded it otherwise. Yet moments earlier, the Incas have been talking about months quite straightforwardly.

Those annoying lapses are made worse by the accents adopted in this produc-tion. Pizarro went back to his native city of Trujillo in Extremadura to recruit his expeditionary force. Nunn obviously regards the place as Spain's equivalent of Clitheroe, because his Spaniards all talk with Lancashire accents. Richard Lin-tern, however, plays a Venetian, so he gets to sound like Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro. The Indians impersonate Nelson Mandela to varying degrees.

Pizarro (Alun Armstrong) goes on and on to his long-suffering page about the folly of the lad's chivalrous illusions. The general's repetitive reflections on ageing and death make Emma Woodhouse's father seem stimulating company. Add to all that the play's appalling length (over three hours) and you begin to get a measure of what Lenten entertainment it is.

Paterson Joseph's muscular Atahualpa sings a silly song about a finch and a blackbird. Shaffer must have thought it good, because it is taken up by Pizarro as though it were full of moment. The Inca and the general become intimate and, supposedly, the Son of the Sun discovers that Pizarro has lost his Christian faith. He "confesses" to his adversary in the Inca way (which involves a lot of physical contact). Ata-hualpa does an athletic native dance that Pizarro tries to copy in his ungainly European fashion. The audience hoots, but the whole thing is hugely implausible.

It is also dramatically puzzling. Pizarro is a more interesting figure to me as one of history's best examples of amoral man. According to Old Martin, the conquistador was never the same again after the trauma of murdering Atahualpa. Well, he actually went on to seize Cuzco and found Lima, so if he felt badly about it he certainly did not let it show.

With stage directions such as "They cross the Andes", the play makes big demands of its director. Nunn responds with fluttering sheets of coloured silk. Hauled up into spikes and coloured white, they make mountains. Billowing red across Cajamarca, they are blood, and coloured gold they become - well, gold. There is lots of dry ice, and with green lighting and some clambering over benches we are supposed to think "jungle". It must be said, however, that the Inca costumes are gorgeous: voluminous feathery creations in many colours; and Atahualpa makes a spectacular appearance, high up at the back of the stage, silhouetted against a gigantic sun.

Alas, the main interest in the production has nothing to do with Peru. Rather it provides a measure of how much we, theatre audiences, have changed. We used not to mind too much when a playwright hectored us on the blooming obvious. We loved the epic mounted on a tiny stage. We were more tolerant of implausibility and could sit for hours without betraying our boredom.

This revival is a mistake. Four decades ago, The Royal Hunt of the Sun was a great success. It would have been better to leave us with our fuzzy memories.

Booking on 020 7452 3000 to 12 August

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