Overnight critics were by and large impressed with the scale of Trevor Nunn’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the first production in this year’s £10 Travelex Season, which opened last night in the NT Olivier (See News, 10 Nov 2005). However, although praising the epic proportions, many remained unconvinced by some of the “dated” messages on display.

Intent on the conquest of Peru, Spanish soldier Pizarro entices recruits with the promise of inconceivable riches, while the Church claims the cause for Christianity. The ensuing clash between two cultures leaves thousands of unarmed Inca troops slaughtered and sparks an intense battle of wills between the sun-god and his captor, as the Spaniards plunder for gold.

Nunn’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1964 play - which was the first new work to be staged by the National Theatre company under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic – stars Alun Armstrong and Paterson Joseph, and continues in rep until 12 August 2006.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “In John Dexter’s original production, the massacre of the Incas was signified, unforgettably, in the simple strewing of the stage with red cloaks. Nunn’s 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.” But, Coveney noted: “The play stands up remarkably well as a metaphor of cultural imperialism, some even noting a parallel with Iraq.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “The play seems slightly dated in its exploration of the growing relationship between Pizarro and Atahuallpa, the Inca sovereign and self-styled sun-god. But, even if the core relationship of the second half lacks the potency it once possessed, Shaffer's play still makes impressive use of the theatre's resources. And Trevor Nunn's Olivier production, staged on Anthony Ward's vast circular disc, is mighty handsome to look at…. It all makes for an epic piece of theatre that keeps one engrossed by the visuals and the narrative.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “There’s something about Shaffer’s seriousness which, as with his Amadeus and Equus, I can’t take wholly seriously… I sometimes felt I was being earnestly addressed by the Wizard of Oz, a gentleman rather smaller than his pretensions.” Nonetheless, Nightingale saluted the National for putting on such an epic: “How many other theatres would stage a serious play that needs more than 30 performers and requires its director, in this case Trevor Nunn, to dispatch Pizarro’s army over the Andes and into the vastness of Inca-dominated Peru?” And he was impressed with Nunn’s direction: “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…. The ascent of the Andes is stirring stuff.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Unlike most dramas of the period where a trip across the drawing room to the drinks tray was the most arduous trek expected of the characters, this clash-of-civilisations epic sent a battalion of Spanish mercenaries on a stylised ascent of the Andes, junking all the trappings of naturalism and using the stage in the Shakespearean manner as a place where anything can happen by imaginative fiat.” Taylor was not too keen on Nunn’s “striking but, by and large, embarrassingly old-fashioned stage-craft and style” which “resorts to tired techniques”, and he didn’t like the Incas’ “pronounced ‘native’ accents… the whole approach to them is more Lion King than Peter Brook.” However, he was impressed with the cast, who are “spot on”. He added: “The production gathers power towards the close, but before that, this Royal Hunt too often loses the scent.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - "The years have not been kind to The Royal Hunt of the Sun… there is something almost touching about the way the writer seems to believe he has stumbled across profound new truths as he laboriously spells out the bleeding obvious. What’s surprising here, though, is that the windiness of the writing is often matched by a curiously lumbering production by Trevor Nunn, full of empty displays of ritual, dodgy choreography and naff mime sequences.” All in all, it’s a “spectacle of the emptiest kind” although “there are a few powerful performances.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - In contrast to Spencer, De Jongh enjoyed Nunn's “flamboyantly drilled direction". "Shaffer's narrative of invasion in the first half is vitalised by clever visuals" and the finale, De Jongh proclaimed, is "one of the greatest in 20th-century drama".

    - by Caroline Ansdell