Rushing home to tell you this, I felt like a ‘30s war correspondent sending reports down the wire. Charlotte Benyon’s production blazes out in a declaration of theatrical glory, and marks the start of an exciting year in Oxford student drama.
Peter Schaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun is the story of two illegitimate sons who seek to become gods: one as a Spanish conqueror, and the other with an Inca crown. The first half had problems: inaccurate sound design set by a sadist, with recorded music blaring over nervous student actors, and Schaffer’s sweeping epic wobbling as the characters defined their relationships. To criticise more would be churlish. From the first scene the production celebrates sharply individuated performances from the officers General Pizarro (leading man Jacob Taee) takes to Peru. Before the interval, my impression of Taae was of a performance still emerging, confidence still gathering and a physical characterisation ever slightly out of reach. I expected to write a review focussing on Alfred Enoch as the aristocratic Hernando de Sota, whose maturity and restraint create the play’s most generous performance. Adam Baghdadi and James Leveson are equally good as the Conquest’s crusading priests; James Leveson, as the younger friar, leads us with great sweetness through his manifesto for mankind. Love, capitalism, Christianity and freedom: Leveson’s intelligent eloquence sets the bar high for performance of Schaffer’s all-encompassing text.
But then, after the interval, something happened. Joe Robertson’s boy-god Atahuallpa stepped down from his pedestal, and Taee changed before our eyes, fully replaced by his character. Having crushed the city, massacred thousands of Indians and imprisoned Atahuallpa, the tormented Pizarro offers this Incan Cleopatra freedom in exchange for impossible amounts of gold. When Atahuallpa’s unexpectedly fulfils the bargain, Pizarro is forced to choose between killing his men and sacrificing the boy-god who has become his soul. The second half of the play has dizzying scope, its debates ranging over Church, State and immortality: but as Pizarro’s own death approaches, his incessant cry for purpose, ‘What for?’ is answered only by the revelation that he cannot countenance Atahuallpa’s killing. Unless, of course, the Sun’s son is as immortal as he believes.
The climactic scene of The Royal Hunt of the Sun takes the audience to the threshold of revelation, in a theatrical moment where anything seems possible. Taee and Robertson give outstanding performances; like Benyon, they deserve unadulterated praise. Overall, though, the cast could be braver with their delivery; Schaffer’s black-gold comedy is sometimes lost as their delivery relentlessly drives the savagery home. Horror is more shocking for a little laughter. Benyon’s company, backed by ambitious design and a brilliant lighting plot, have a bravura hit on their hands. Not for a long time has a show made me feel such wonder.
Please hurry and book your tickets – this is a five-star production with only five shows left.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.