Peter Shafferís 1964 epic chronicle about the Spanish conquest of Peru, full of feathers, gold, birdsong and billowing silk, was the first new play presented by the National Theatre: at Chichester, the Old Vic and for a season in the West End. Trevor Nunnís revival Ė the first in London since a Prospect Theatre touring production visited the Round House in 1973 Ė restores the play to the big open spaces it deserves in the Olivier auditorium.
In John Dexterís original production, the massacre of the Incas was signified, unforgettably, in the simple strewing of the stage with red cloaks. Nunnís instinct for spectacle is much gaudier: the eyes are assaulted with strobe lighting (an effect surely well past its sell-by date) and a red silk parachute billows across the stage.
The play stands up remarkably well as a metaphor of cultural imperialism, some even noting a parallel with Iraq. But there was something both grander and more freakish about the adventure of a handful of Spanish mercenaries conquering an empire by capturing its sun god sovereign in 1532. Shafferís telling of the story focuses on the protagonists of two worlds: the grizzled 63-year-old Spanish general Francisco Pizarro, seeking a confirmation of his own faith as well as gold for his men; and the mysterious young Atahuallpa, bound in chains, offering a roomful of gold as a ransom.
The device of a narrator who participates in his own story as a younger man gives the play a resonance and poignancy I had forgotten. Malcolm Storry as the older Martin Ruiz is a powerful advocate. Never scaling the gruffly compelling heights of Colin Blakely as Pizarro, Alun Armstrong stumbles, rather than surges, through the play and opens out too easily to the exotic lessons in humanity from his prisoner.
Those lessons are beautifully discharged by Paterson Joseph as Atahuallpa, a gleaming, untouchable icon who locates the central homoerotic fascination in his lovely harvest song about the little finch. Robert Stephens originally created a monument to artifice greatly influenced by Laurence Olivierís Othello, with an Aztec profile, a squawking voice and swept back hair like Maria Callasí. Josephís approach is wonderfully direct and self-assured, elegance of movement matched with blazing eyes.
Marc Wilkinsonís original music plays its part here, though the evening is marred by Nunnís insistence on over-microphoning the actors as well as the musicians. Anthony Wardís simple design of a raised wooden disc, and his colourful costumes, are just the job in an evening where the presentation, while a little too fustian in its epic gesticulations, still clarifies the heart of a great story.
- Michael Coveney