Mimed Massacre

of the Incas

Text:  Glen Eagle

It was my second Prison Project session; my first at HMP The Mount in Hemel Hempstead. Bruce Wall had asked me to do a scene from ‘The Royal Hunt of the Sun’ by Sir Peter Shaffer. I was playing ‘Atahuallpa’ the Inca King and Alasdair Craig was essaying ‘Valverde’ the spiritual spokesman for ‘Francisco Pizarro’ (Adrian Fear), the violent leader of the Spanish forces. 


Having Claude Chagrin in the prison with us to supervise was a massive help as she was Olivier’s movement specialist and had created the original Massacre, hugely enhancing John Dexter’s innovative production of ‘Royal Hunt of the Sun’ at the National starring Sir Robert Stephens, the late Colin Blakely and Sir Derek Jacobi among many others. Madam Chagrin, much as she did for the original masterworks of Shaffer’s Equus and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, offered all of us a unique and intriguing insight into a world so few see. As a background, I include a brief blurb for the film of Shaffer’s career-breaking play:


This dramatic tale of what was arguably the most significant and one sided battle in history should be seen by all. A trivial army of 167 conquistadors led by Pizarro killed 7000 of the Inca’s god king Atahuallpa’s army of 80,000 in a single battle. The battle was symbolic of Spain’s rape of America, but more generally of Europe’s domination of the world. The “victory” of the west can be seen as no more than the “good luck” of the bloody thirsty warriors of Western Europe who learned so much from fighting with each other that collectively they could achieve world hegemony. In this battle horsemen, steel, and an ideology of duplicity won the day over a naive other world whose innocence is now virtually unimaginable.


After working on some of Shakespeare’s text earlier in the session with great passion and vigour with the prisoners, Bruce and Claire Kissane, (one of the LSW team), read Hamlet’s instruction to the players interspersed with a quote by Martha Graham. The appreciation of the Graham quote was astounding as it related the uniqueness of one’s own contribution. I, too, could relate to this and it gave me confidence. I took a copy of it home to give myself courage when my chips are down. God knows how much it meant to the inmates although I noticed a goodly number coming up at the end and requesting copies.


Introducing the Shaffer segment by a performance of the opening chorus from Henry V where only the suggestion of characters and locations were altered, (“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of Peru”, etc.) the men responding brilliantly with their assorted, randomly selected ‘Action’ lines we came to the actual mounting of the Massacre itself. The LSW team could sense, as we were performing during the first (presentational) round, that the inmates were itching to get up and make the space their own. 


The prisoner known as Benson, who I had heard from others had great presence – (they weren’t wrong) – took over the role of Atahuallpa, the Inca King, from me and did it with huge energy and strength and the rumble of the drums (which I had borrowed from my girlfriend) added to the proud depiction of the world of the Inca warriors, populated here by both inmates and LSW Prison Project members. Colin Greenwood, another Mount resident, shot through the rougish Spanish (‘T’will be our God or none at all’) prudery with an insightfully clear Scottish brogue. As he presented ‘the Word of God’ to Atahuallpa, (here represented by the Collected Works of Shakespeare) the crowd essaying the Incas scurried forward in abject curiosity. After Pizarro’s battle cry: ‘SAN JAGO’, a mesmeric hell broke forth, with waves of Incas being slain in rthymic score. 


As soon as the front lines were down, the back was up and through as yet more rows of the dying and dead. We few – we band of brothers – had become, in that carefully choreographed instant, the picture of a vast multitude. It took but a second to see that the men of The Mount had become entranced by the rhythmic depiction and it took us all of forty minutes under Madam Chagrin’s insightful direction to realise in part the core of this massive slice of work which had, originally, taken eight weeks to foster. 


There was very real dramatic tension as the two leaders met in theatrical conflict. The Massacre itself had a fluid control and an amazing grace even though it was depicting the historic mass carnage of a very real people. Claude Chagrin was responsible for the heightened almost beautiful style in which the Inca’s met their deaths. A masterful magician indeed. The faces of victorious Conquistadors were, in our new ending, smothered by Pizarro with (mimed) blood on their faces; gore stolen away from the corpses of their dead spoil, who shortly thereafter, they victoriously dragged away.


Not having the huge flowing cloth representing a river of blood which Shaffer’s text suggests – (the resources at the HMP The Mount production shop do not stretch to such ‘National Theatre’ luxuries, I fear) – we came up with a new ending by incorporating an obscure segment of text from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus ably spoken by Adrian Fear, standing proud as the triumphant despot, Pizarro.


Receive the blood; and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small

And with this hateful liquor temper it:

And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.

Come, come, be every one officious

To make this banquet; which I may prove

More stern and bloody than the Centaur’s feast.

So play on. Bring them in, for I’ll play the cook,
And see them ready whence their mothers come


Here was an example of ‘Interspersing Shakespeare’ in action. Indeed, one which worked in triumph, triumphantly. The picture of Benson as the Inca leader, the sole survivor of his race, smeared in their blood as the chief Spanish spoil, led away by Pizarro between the shifting remains of his own peoples to the funereal strains of the drums which the Peruvian dead had only seconds before been thrashing, shall long live in my mind’s eye and ear.


This was a truly liberating session at HMP The Mount for everyone involved; taking a tragic scene and making it gloriously spiritual; employing Shakespeare in a new perspective and making it live afresh all over again. This depiction of huge violence was spectacular in its imaginative effect, wrought without a physical weapon in sight. 


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