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Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

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Groping Towards the Godly
Local shows take up the religious quest

By Richard Lord

Peter Shaffer is something like the Graham Greene of the British stage. His substantial body of work can be neatly divided into ‘Entertainments’ (as Greene dubbed his middle-brow detective and crime novels) and more serious works where both writers took up large issues such as politics, psychology and religion.

Shaffer’s first big theatrical success was Five-finger Exercise, which skated deftly over the thin ice of sexual frustrations and misunderstandings in a middle-aged woman’s infatuation with a young Viennese piano teacher whom she mistakenly thinks is likewise taken with her.

From there, Shaffer set out on his forked path. Shorter plays like Black Comedy and White Lies were clever, well-executed entertainments which demonstrate how good these things can be when done by an intelligent craftsman. Lettuce and Lovage, despite the radical environmentalist issues pasted onto the story, is essentially a frolic with two middle-aged women who are so diligently loveable you just want to strangle them.

But then we have Shaffer’s ‘serious’ works, where laughs are carefully rationed and the playwright reaches for the super-nova of big themes, where psychology and religion intersect, or - more often - collide. Perhaps the most famous of these ‘serious Shaffer’ outings are Equus and Amadeus. Despite the strong superficial differences between the two, an underlying theme links these works. Equus involves a British psychiatrist assigned to treat a teenager accused of blinding horses left in his care as a stable-boy; Amadeus examines the way Antonio Salieri, a mediocre late 18th century composer, takes his vengeance on the God who has denied him musical genius by plotting the death of the crude, foul-mouthed eternal adolescent in whom the Almighty has deposited that spark of genius - one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The same theme also underlies the opening play in this Shaffer direction, The Royal Hunt of the Sun. This effort, first performed in 1964, is nowhere near as accomplished a piece of theatre as the two later works, but it does establish the core themes that were to occupy Shaffer over the next 20 years.

Royal Hunt is the story of the conquest of the Incas by a ragtag band of Spanish adventurers under the determined leadership of Juan Pizarro. Now, Pizarro was evidently one of the most vicious, greedy and genocidally-prone of the Spanish Conquistadors, a gang known for its viciousness, greed and fondness for genocidal activities. It is estimated that before Pizarro and his successors finished their conquests, 90% of the Incas had fallen to either Spanish swords, Spanish-ignited blazes, or diseases the Spanish had brought over with them from Europe.

However, in Royal Hunt, Shaffer romanticises this vicious conqueror, even as he also romanticises other characters such as the main priest. (If you can imagine a religious fanatic eager to kill anyone who does not accept his faith being a romanticisation.)

But Shaffer is not interested in providing a staged history lesson here; he is set himself out some more interesting paths to pursue. What Shaffer, in fact, does here is to take the coarse clay of the historical Pizarro and mold it into a sympathetic mystic desperately seeking something he is not been able to find in the ordered world of his native Spain and its rigid brand of Catholicism.

Shaffer’s Pizarro starts out thinking he, like most of his fellow conquistadors, is only looking for gold and related riches. But then he discovers the true source of his quest when he is thrown up against it high in the Andes. And what this bizarre Pizarro is really looking for is the numinous, the sense of overpowering awe which results when the human comes into contact with some aspect of the divine.

This uprooted European thinks he may have found it in the religion of the Incas, and its human embodiment - the Inca, the leader of this strange, new civilisation. The title-holder at the point of Pizarro’s arrival is one Atahuallpa, and Schaffer has his Pizarro immediately fascinated by him. The human knot that ties this play together is the strange bonding the two men quickly form. Like Pizarro himself, Atahuallpa was an illegitimate child who had to defeat his half-brother in a bloody civil war to gain his throne. (The half-sibling was killed in the war, and Schaffer’s Spanish eventually execute Atahuallpa on dubious charges of murder, a historically accurate if plot-twisted account.) Pizarro, who grew up always feeling inferior because of his own bastard status, immediately connects with this charismatic Andean usurper. More importantly, he deeply senses the power of this indigenous religion and the man revered as the son of one of its main god.

The play moves from this point to face off with a number of intriguing themes. However, it ultimately fails to give a clinching argument or even satisfactory solution to them. Also, the play feels very much like an impressive early work by a playwright who had not quite mastered his craft. The script is filled with a number of powerful, well-wrought speeches, but they all too often deflect from the dramatic action or seem to be uncomfortably wedged into the scenes.

Also, this play, despite its huge cast, offers only a few characters with anything like full dimensions. Pizarro is, obviously, one of them, as is the Inca. The other two are the same character seen at different life stages: Martin, encountered both as an enthusiastic youth who joins the expedition with dreams of discovering and exploiting new worlds and also as an old man, totally disillusioned with his former hero, Pizarro, and the whole Spanish enterprise in South America. It is this elder Martin who serves as the play’s narrator - which also, of course, makes him our moral compass on the events covered. (Another dramatic flaw here: Martin at times seems to know a lot about scenes and internal changes that he could not really witness.)

This heady brew of psycho-religious juices was brought to local audiences back in late July under the auspices of World-in-Theatre. Co-directors Chris Cheers and Sonny Lim made an excellent choice right up top in selecting their venue for this production: the Substation Garden. The outdoor setting, framed and interposed by trees and attended by the soft chorus of nature’s nocturnal sounds, lent the production an air of authenticity that an enclosed stage could only match with a huge, sumptuous and expensive set.

They also made wise decisions with their raggedy, minimalist costumes and the infusion of music with a heavy nod towards drums. Choreography by Elizabeth de Roza was also a fine element here, though the abilities of the dancers were very mixed.

Admittedly, the energy brought to the production by just about everyone was obvious, but energy does not always equal solid performances, and this is where the WIT production sagged a bit. The cast itself was rather mixed in acting talents, but uniformly ardent and lively.

The most solid performances came from Neelam Chugh as Martin, the play’s narrator, Ferlin Jayatissa as a much older Martin recounting events, and Subramaniam V as Atahuallpa. With fierce eyes focused on a world he first controls, then is unable to comprehend, Subramaniam V looks every inch the Inca god-king. His poised presence, even in the face of impending death, fit the part beautifully as well; this fellow delivered a performance worthy of his regal demeanour.

Sad to say, the real weak spot in this show was right there at the centre, in Phillip Marcelo’s Pizarro. Marcelo had the right look for a Conquistador well past his prime, drawing on the last dregs of ambition and greed to carry out a daunting assignment. The actor’s crazed, trail-worn appearance and punchy movements fit this interpretation well.

Unfortunately, this actor’s weakest tool was his voice. This was unfortunate indeed, as Pizarro commands a large chunk of text, and has the most powerful and lyrical speeches. But Marcelo had problems with something as basic as enunciation and as crucial as capturing the right tone. Still on the evening of the last performance, Pizarro’s most important speeches came off more as rants, his moments of quiet reflection as asides with many words lost somewhere in the night breezes.

The smaller roles were handled with varying degrees of competence. Sonny Lim’s Hernando de Soto, Pizarro’s second-in-command, may have been somewhat one-dimensional, but the fault there lies with the playwright, not the actor. Lim gave everything that could be expected of him to make the character credible and sympathetic, displaying fine skills throughout.

R. Chandran delivered a scowling, vigorous performance as the chaplain, infusing the whole with energy. His character, too, was one-dimensional, but he did serve up the obsessive religious intolerant Schaffer sculpted here.

Also, it may sound contradictory to pin any blame for the production’s weakness on two of the better performers, but the two Martins could have strengthened this show by plumbing more into the depths of their characters. If for instance, Neelam Chugh’s had shown us even more of the development of disilluion or if Ferlin Jayatissa had unleashed more of that pain disillusion brings as it scours all faith from a man trapped in darkness at the end of his life, this Royal Hunt could have been a stronger show.

Yet, for all that, I found this production rather impressive. Energy never lagged over more than two intense hours, and there was enough acting talent, sound effects and directorial imagination to bring out boldly some key aspects of Schaffer’s bitter brew of a script. All successful theatre is a combination of craft and magic. If the World-in-Theatre production of Royal Hunt was a bit spotty in its craft, it was quite strong in its capture of magic, a most illusive force. For that, they are to be applauded, with much appreciation for bringing this difficult work to Singapore.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003


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  Other Extra Media article in this Issue

Horror Raya - Atomic Jaya
By Richard Lord.

Related Links

Peter Shaffer profile
External link.

Another Peter Shaffer profile
External link to the BBC.

Review of the premiere of Royal Hunt of the Sun
External link to the Guardian.

Peter Shaffer as Transcendent Antithesis
External link.

John Pielmeier profile
External link.

Agnes of God script
External link.

Review of Agnes of God
External link to the Flying Inkpot.

Action Theatre
External link.

Review of Waterloo Stories
External link to Happening.com.sg.


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