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Toby Young
Saturday 29th April 2006

The Royal Hunt of the Sun / The Voysey Inheritance / Hay Fever


The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Peter Shaffer's 1964 play about the conquest of the Incas, contains one of the most famous stage directions in modern drama: "They cross the Andes." On the face of it, these four words are completely preposterous. How could a theatre company possibly create the illusion that a 4,000-strong army is crossing a mountain range? Yet there was method to Shaffer's madness. By including a stage direction that was impossible to follow naturalistically, he was forcing directors, actors, set designers, and so on, to fall back on their ingenuity. In order to do justice to this play, they would have to use such devices as mime, music and dance--they would have to embrace what has come to be known as "total theatre".

Insofar as The Royal Hunt of the Sun ushered in a new, non-naturalistic era in British drama, Shaffer has a lot to answer for. I absolutely loathe "total theatre". It's a catch-all term for everything that is precious and self-regarding and insufferable about contemporary theatre. (Picture a bunch of luvvies leaping about the stage clutching a ream of blue silk in an attempt to recreate a shipwreck and you have some idea of what "total theatre" means.) It's based on a profound misunderstanding of what it is about a really good play that engages an audience's imagination. It's got very little to do with the use of these "imaginative" tropes--almost all of which have become wretched clichés--and everything to do with things like character and plot. In short, tapping into the audience's unconscious is more or less the sole responsibility of the playwright. The primary skill required to breath life into a play is literary and any attempt to locate it elsewhere--such as in a mime artist's impersonation a snow leopard--represents an act of dumbing down.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss The Royal Hunt of the Sun, even if it was partly responsible for this wrong turning. At first, I was tempted to dismiss it for another reason--namely, that it's a piece of anti-imperialist agitprop--but it soon becomes clear that Shaffer is less interested in parading his liberal credentials than exploring the intellectual issues thrown up by the clash of two very different civilizations.

The anti-hero of the play is Pizarro, the leader of the Spanish expeditionary force. He's a modern everyman: he lives in a disenchanted universe. Morality, religion, the code of chivalry--they're all bunk to him. The only things he cares about are fame and money. Not surprisingly, when this cold-blooded rationalist encounters the Dionysian civilization of the Incas, he embraces it with a passion. Here are a people in touch with precisely that side of their nature that Pizarro has spent his life repressing. The Inca king, in particular--a beautiful young man named Atahuallpa--completely bewitches him. Whenever he's in the company of this self-proclaimed living god he falls into a kind of homoerotic trance.

In this context, Shaffer's attempt to use non-literary devices to express himself--"They cross the Andes"--is almost forgivable. His rejection of Sixties naturalism in favour of something more abstract is clearly intended to echo the conversion of Pizarro to the religion of the Incas. Shaffer is trying to recreate in the theatre the same primitive ecstasy that Pizarro discovers in ancient Peru.

If any proof is required that the key to transporting an audience is a well-written play, look no further than The Voysey Inheritance. A classic of the Edwardian era that's rarely revived, Harley Granville Barker's play is a gripping exploration of the conflict between naïve high-mindedness and worldly cynicism. The story is set in motion when the son in a family firm of solicitors discovers that his father has been dipping into the clients' trust funds and, initially, Granville Barker's sympathies appear to lie entirely with the younger of the two men. However, as the action progresses, the expiatory arguments of the father seem less like sophistry and more like practical wisdom and, by the end of the play, you're not sure whose side Granville Barker is on. I don't wish to belittle the people involved in this production--Peter Gill's direction is refreshingly straightforward and almost all the performances are superb. But the reason The Voysey Inheritance is such an absorbing piece of drama is because Granville Barker manages to preserve the tension between two fundamentally opposing points of view until the very end.

I didn't much care for Peter Hall's revival of Hay Fever I'm afraid, in spite of the presence of Judi Dench and Peter Bowles. As a piece of comedy writing, it's very uneven. Some sections--the first scene of the second half, for instance--are extremely well done, whilst others fall completely flat. You get the impression that Coward tossed off a first draft--and then couldn't be bothered to revise it. One for the tourists.

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