Some knowledge of the tragic outcomes arising out of the clash of Inca and Spanish cultures underpinned by the greed for gold nearly 500 years ago on which the play is based feeds the anticipation of some very strong drama.
In taking this route, director, Matt Todd, really chances his arm. The mix of period and more contemporary costuming has the potential to place further pressure on the show's credibility. Yet everything works extremely well, albeit it if not entirely to perfection. For instance the arming of Pizzaro's army with what appeared to be a mix of paper mache or toy weapons tends to detract from the superbly dark mood and images the setting, costumes and performances otherwise achieve. Genuine swords were found for Merry Wives of Windsor two years ago and the pikes, axes and swords used last year in “Wolf Hall” & “Bring Up The Bodies” while not genuine were still convincing replications of 16th century weaponry. So better examples are available. Granted, that with genuine weapons the two battle scenes in the play would need careful and very precise choreography. But even then one of these was cleverly portrayed with some smart lighting use over having bodies milling around the stage in actual combat. Also granted a genuine semi-automatic rifle, symbolically introduced at one point in the performance, would these days be impossible to acquire. Even one properly disabled against use. However, an old replica musket may have worked as well.
Matt Todd makes use of considerable symbolism. The audience is led into a dark world of religious intolerance, greed, a lack of concern for human life, the misuse of power, and finally the ultimate betrayal. All of which could be experienced on a daily basis in the 16th century and both prior and beyond and today. The staging of The Royal Hunt of the Sun for the Wellington public is timely. A limiting of any over the top lavishness and special effects (which the play has the potential to apply in spades) allows a clearer insight into a number of its not too subtle warnings. These underpin the search for gold and the nil regard for the decimation of an entire culture unravels on a 16th century stage setting. Thus in Matt's production, if theatre goers are prepared to look, can be found: the dangers of state power based on a religion; Christian intolerance based on some of its unshakeable beliefs some of which exist still today; political expediency which too often sees today's promises and commitments reversed tomorrow; parallel events in Iraq underpinned by the world's lust for black gold; or even comparing female actors in aggressive militaristic roles with a current emergence of “girl” gangs. For that audiences should be especially grateful to Matt's approach.
Further symbolism was evident when Inca servants began the collation of gold artifacts as ransom for their God-King, Atahuallpa, during Act 2. A range of rather unusual representations provid some light, if maybe unintentional, light relief in a show where there was, otherwise, very little. The set is minimalist, comprising upper and lower stages. The first is dominated by a gigantic sun symbol with moving petals comprising one of the few special effects employed. Under this the character of Atahuallpa stands and pronounces for much of the play while Pizzaro and his/her unruly gang use the lower stage.
Experienced actors and strong personalities are a key requirement for any Shaffer script to succeed. Thankfully, both of these are on show in abundance. At curtain rise, audiences are given the context of events post their occurrence through the intermittent and ongoing narration of Martin played by Julia Harris. Her younger self too is also seen on stage taking full part in Pizzaro's expedition. Julia presents herself superbly costumed and her vast experience and strength of delivery are commanding. Indeed such is the clarity and forcefulness of her delivery throughout I could not stop thinking of her as an ideal Pizzaro herself. Not that Catherine McMechan was lacking in her own portrayal of that role. She and Matt Darragh as the Inca Sun God-King, Atahuallpa, are vital to the show's credibility and its ultimate success. The interplay between the two dominate the second act in particular and their portrayals require both a directness and a subtlety in an evolving relationship that Shaffer demands. They achieve this well. Additionally, they convince in contrasting egoistic characters. They nicely meet required shifts from conflict into friendship; and deliver huge volumes of dialogue at pace and without obvious falter.
In years of undertaking many diverse roles in Wellington theatre, Catherine is never less than
convincing. And more often achieves an even higher quality in her work. Her portrayal as Pizzaro is right up there with her best. In Act 2 a shift from brutal confidence and an arrogant belief in her own prowess of command to self doubt and a new unwillingness to betrayal was seamless.
It is also gratifying to see Matt Darragh being given his chance in a major stage role. The demanding characterisation of Atahuallpa is a far cry from his semi-comic, but well managed, portrayal of the the 17th century playwright, John Dryden in Nell Gwynn two years ago. His new role thrusts him into a constant presence on stage requiring him holding on to a firm belief in his perceived divinity and immortality throughout. In this he succeeds. While his Wellington stage experience is not a long one, he has performed successfully in other centres and this shows.
A large supporting cast of more than 20 Spanish soldiers; and Inca warriors and servants too were a key contribution. The Spanish soldiers provided an impressively and effectively costumed “girl gang” of cursing, rough Spanish soldiers. They match well a perception of low lifers sprawled from the slums, taverns and brothels of Spanish cities and ports that one expects of such a crew. Too many to list here, the younger Martin played by Grace Meldicott; Madeline Lock as the Catholic Church's chief representative priest, Valverde; and Annette Cochran as Pizzaro's lieutenant , De Soto are all worth a mention. But it was their collective presence that worked best. Madeline Lock's suitably grotesque make up as the priest was particularly imposing. She appeared as having emerged straight from one of the Inquisition's dungeons each time she walked the stage. Given the power of the Spanish Catholic Church in the 16th century I wondered at a more shadowy and menacing interpretation of the priest and one that less directly challenges Pizzaro's authority working better. But no matter, all significantly contributed to a clear success. So too did the masked Incas. Fewer in number than the Spanish soldiery they made up in volume and team work. However, carrying what are supposedly be items of gold, some of which are quite large, as if they were featherweight did not quite ring true when so much of the rest of the performance did. The play is supported by a backstage crew of over 30 who too need to be given credit for a tight and slickly performed show that attracted a near full house on opening night. It deserves nothing less for the rest of its season.
The Royal Hunt Of The Sun continues to 13 April at the Gryphon Theatre, Ghuznee Street,
Wellington. Dates & times are as follows:
4-16 April 7.30 pm
7 April 3.00pm
9-10 April 6.30 pm
11-13 April 7.30 pm
Bookings at: www.wellingtonrepertory.org.nz