November 20, 2023
Based the 1998 play The Throne Without A Seal by Bavuu Lkhagvasuren, a tale about the struggle for succession to the throne of the Hun Dynasty, The Mongol Khan is very much a text-based work with movement added. The result is a sort of Peking Opera meets Bollywood mish-mash, with a generous amount of Shakespeare at its roots, and puppets that owe a generous reference to Terry Gilliam.
John Man’s translation of the play is masterful. He wisely shuns any attempt to replicate the first line assonance of the original, but instead produces truly beautiful poetry. However, this is to the detriment of the visual experience which, in any case nowhere near matches the sophistication or subtlety of the text. The need to pay attention to the surtitles also, and unfortunately, directs the eye from the stage.
The plot is fairly simple. Set 2,000 years in the past when polygamy was predominant, it so happens that two of the Khan’s concubines produce sons in short succession. The Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold) is suspicious about the paternity as he has not favoured the concubine Tsetser (Uranchimeg Urtnasan) for many years, so he chooses Gurgel’s (Dulguun Odkhuu) son and appoints him heir apparent at his birth. Tsetser had indeed had a liaison with the Khan’s Iago-like trusted advisor Egereg (Bold-Erdene Sugar) who persuades Tsetser to swap the infants so that his own son is reared as the successor to the Empire.
Some years later, Prince Achir (Dorjsuren Shadav) has grown into a cruel and stupid young man who in addition, having been kicked in the head by a horse in infancy, is epileptic. Neither warrior material nor suitable to rule an Empire, the Khan is driven to slay him (think Ivan IV and Boris Godunov), simultaneously permitting his mother the ‘honourable’ option of suicide. Infuriated, Egereg in turn murders the Khan’s true son and challenges the Khan for the throne. In vain.
The story unfolds at great length with extended dramatic scenes punctuated by a chorus-filled stage depicting warriors and allegorical characters. Leotard-clad dancers represent the mental states of the characters in a style that alternates between adagio act-like acrobatics with a dash of Peking Opera tumbling, much bouncing in second position shaking masks and other props, and sinuous ports de bras that are Graham-like. There is even a dash of Igor Moiseyev-like corps de ballet movements, a dance with handkerchiefs that is very reminiscent of Armenian folk dancing, and the type of monster-human relationships that is weirdly reminiscent of Dr Who (with a much bigger budget).
Gangzoric Dangaa’s designs are sumptuous and the use of the upstage rake extends the sense of depth on an already deep stage. This however limits the movement style to the less-expansive.
Mike Robinson and Andrew Ellis are jointly credited with the lighting design which is rather clichéd and comes with much flashing of white strobes and vast amounts of blood red. The former are partly directed straight out to the auditorium which is somewhat headache-inducing as is the thumping recorded sound at times.
Birvaa Myagmar’s score lacks originality and would not be out of place accompanying a video game or Hollywood action film, although the necessity to reproduce it in recording probably does it no favours.
It is a spectacle. But while one cannot fault the effort that has gone into The Mongol Khan, its lack of sophistication and pace make it hard to endure.