Writer: Lkhagvasuren Bavuu
Translation and adaptation: John Man and Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Hero Baatar
When it comes to Mongolian theatre, one has no expectations. After all, none has graced British stages before, and certainly not with the scale of The Mongol Khan. What promises to be an epic tale of royal intrigue and betrayal demands a cast of over 70 that occasionally fills the Coliseum’s enormous stage with colour and dance.
This production is an attempt for the country of Mongolia to step out of the shadows of its neighbours Russia and China, and comes to London to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Kingdom becoming the first nation to recognise the Asian country’s sovereign status.
So there’s a lot riding on the tale, an adapted version of Mongolian writer Lkhagvasuren Bavuu’s epic The State Without a Seal, as translated by John Man and adapted by his wife, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. And if it is spectacle you are after there are plenty of epic moments, as troupes of dancers, whether courtiers or dream-like manifestations of the lead characters’ inner motivations, flood the stage.
The story at the heart of the play is set in the early days of the nomadic Hunnu Empire, as the current Khan, Archug (Erdenebileg Ganbold) faces news that two of his wives have given birth days apart. He doubts the parentage of one, given that he has not been intimate with Uranchimeg Urtnasan’s Queen Tsetser for some years – and indeed, her child is the illegitimate progeny of Archie’s scheming and ambitious chancellor, Egereg (Bold-Erdene Sugar).
The play’s first act devotes itself to Egereg’s scheming to get his son Achir named heir to the throne over Archug’s blood son, Kurchir. That this plot point takes an hour perhaps gives some clue to the thinness of the plot holding the dance moments together. It’s not until after the interval that we get to see Achir grown up – now a spiteful young man, but one troubled both by epilepsy and, to Western eyes at least, effeminacy – both traits which run counter to the version of masculinity deemed suitable for a Khan. The scenes in which Archug and Achir circle one another, each trying to decide whether killing the other would be good for the empire, feel interminable.
It doesn’t help that the surtitles above the actors’ spoken Mongolian seem devoid of any sense of artistry or poetry. The intonation of the performers’ voices suggests a sense of verse sadly lacking from the humdrum English dialogue offered.
The two women at the heart of the story suffer greatly – Tsetser is first treated barbarically by Egereg to persuade her to partake in his plan, and later is executed for having the temerity to have given birth to a man who turned out to be a disappointment.
As the slight story drags to its sorry end, at least the costumes – from cultural regalia to animals with gravity-defying tails and wings – provide a visual treat. But the dancing itself doesn’t particularly excite, even when chopping and changing from Westernised ballet-style moves to potentially more exciting cirque-inspired routines.
It all feels big, brash – and empty. Like a grand opera without any singing, a long Shakespeare without any poetry, or a dance piece that has constructed a half-hearted narrative to tie its disparate strands together, there’s a sense that nothing in The Mongol Khan is quite as complete as it should be. While it may offer the occasional spectacle, is that enough to act as a vanguard for Mongolian cultural export? One hopes the country has more to offer than this.
Continues until 2 December 2023