Well, that was certainly a spectacle – colour, dance, music, naked ambition, betrayal, cast of thousands (OK perhaps not quite that many, but a lot).
Leader of the ancient Hunnu empire, Archug Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold) has two queens – favourite Gurgel (Dulguun Odkhuu) and the older Tsetser (Uranchimeg Urtnasan), from whom he has been estranged for some time. When they both produce a son within close succession, suspicion about paternity of one child arises, leading to the Khan making the decision to declare one of the babies as his official successor while still an infant, against all tradition. There is some skulduggery in the nursery resulting in betrayal and bloodshed in the second half.
Based on an original play by Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, the production is in Mongolian with English surtitles; ease of reading dependent on your eyesight and seat position I guess. Occasionally I missed the translation because I was too busy looking at the action and sometimes the other way round. It is a fairly straightforward storyline, though, so easy enough to follow, with the full plot outlined in the programme, which also contains a lot of interesting background information. I would recommend making sure you know the story beforehand and not bothering too much with the surtitles. This leaves more time to watch what is happening on stage – and there is a lot happening.
In an interview extract Bavuu talks about the “…3000 lines of verse” in his original play, so I wonder what has been lost in adapting it for the West End. Some of the lines on the surtitles seemed a bit wooden and a couple did make me laugh (at inappropriate moments). In the middle of a tense, life changing moment of decision making we were told “It is hard being a Khan.” I’m sure it is. The Mongolian language does, however, lend itself to the dramatic content and the declamatory style adopted throughout. There is a lot of purposeful striding and many expansive hand gestures. That is not a criticism by the way, it suits the production.
Bold Ochirjantsan’s costumes are the real star of this show. They are fantastically colourful, bright, sparkly and flowing, sometimes a little bit strange and with intricately designed, eerie masks. Apparently, historical records on Hunnic clothing are scarce but there has been a lot of research to get the costumes, jewellery, headpieces and props as accurate as possible. Of course, fantastic as the costumes are, people still have to be able to move in them to do justice to the acrobatics and choreography, which also reflects Mongolian traditional dance moves. This was both lively and sinuous and acted as punctuation to the narrative. I am struggling to think of a scene where there were no dancers on stage. Add to the mix flashes, bangs, frequent lighting changes, peals of thunder, backdrops of giant planets and a very large dragon puppet… Of course there is a large dragon puppet: what I want to know is why we didn’t see more of it.
This is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The plot is pretty flaky and drawn out, it is in need of some serious character development and the acting style is not what most of us are used to. However, if you can just park these considerations and go for the colour, energy and sheer spectacle you will have a great time.
Written by: Lhagvasuren Bavuu
English Translation and Adaptation by: John Man and Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by: Hero Baatar
Produced by: Bayra Bela (Bayartsetseg Altangerel); Unurmaa Janchiv
Costume Design by: Bold Ochirjantsan
Puppet Design by: Nick Barnes
The Mongol Khan plays at The London Coliseum until 2 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.