Review by Sam Waite
The English National Opera have opened their home venue, the gorgeous London Coliseum, to an international production, John Man’s translation of The Mongol Khan as adapted for the London stage by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Performed in Mongolian, with sur-titles above and to the side of the stage itself, the foreign language won't come as a surprise to regular attendees of the Coliseum’s programming, but the sheer bombast may be shocking for some London audiences.
Set immediately apart from recent high-profile productions like Oklahoma! or Sunset Boulevard, The Mongol Khan drips in grandeur and the majesty of its staging. The story, of a Mongol leader whose suspicions around the parentage of one of his heirs eventually leads to tragedy for all, is often secondary to the outlandish spectacle and inventive movement work. While this does create a thrilling evening, it does leave a slight feeling of hollowness once you've had time to digest what you’ve seen.
Originally written as The State without a Seal, the play introduces Archug Khan as both his Queen and his Queen Consort have given birth just days apart – suspicions are immediate, given that he hasn't been intimate with the Queen in decades. Once he has declared that the Consort’s son will inherit his title and power, his wife’s lover (and his trusted advisor) schemes to have the infant princes switched before either’s appearance becomes distinct. With The Mongol Khan’s status as an epic tragedy, you can imagine how poorly this eventually turns out.
The actors are solid in their performances, but the sheer magnitude of everything going on around them drowns out any subtleties and rarely allows for them to fully develop the characters. Uranchimeg Urtnasan has some particularly impressive moments as Queen Tsetser, whose conflicting feelings and developing love for a son not truly her own give her the opportunity to display her knack for balancing fragility and resilience. Her lover, Chancellor Egereg, comes alive in key moments where Bold-Erdene Sugar is able to lean beautifully into the duplicity and menace behind this measured, ever-calculating right hand man.
Hero Baatar, both the director and executive producer, makes bold use of his background as an illustrator. Baatar knows how to create a striking visual moment, and how best to angle a scene and its actors to create the strongest impact on the audience. While the enormity of the affair doesn't leave much room for nuance or intricacies of character, he manages to guide his actors through clear character directions, making each distinct and their positions in the story apparent even through the distractions of the grand spectacle around them. Likewise, movement direction from Enkhjargal Sharaa helps bring clarity to where our focus should be, and to who is or is not in a position of power in any given scene.
The sizeable ensemble perform in unison and with an easy grace, clearly comfortable on stage and with the joint efforts of choreographers Khashkhuu Khatankhuyag and Bayarbaatar Davaasuren. Along with Sharaa, the trio guide the troupe through thrilling routines and striking, if occasionally confusing, movement pieces. Admittedly, the movement work in scenes that implied only the leading players being present did raise questions that were never answered – where they representing hoards of servants who would never dare share the secrets being discussed, or simply a metaphor for the more private moments taking place?
But this is a show to be beheld and in awe of, rather than to follow the intricacies of the plot or of the artistic choices. Bold Ochirjantsan’s costumes are beautifully and full of detail, and puppets designed by Nick Barnes and directed by Scarlet Wilderink bring a real sense of wonder and (possibly literal) magic to the proceedings. Art design, including striking sets that make deceptively large impressions when you take the time to realise their relative simplicity, is the stellar work of Ganzorug Dangaa, and complimented beautifully by Andrew Ellis’ lighting. When the light passes through the backdrops to create the image of a lion on the floor of the stage, it's easy to get lost in the world of The Mongol Khan.
The final touch to this sense of immersion is the sound design from David Gregory, which has both the dynamic original score (from Birvaa Myagmar and Odbayar Battogtokh) and the echoing of key snippets of dialogue fill the mighty Coliseum and make the action sound closer, much more intimate than it truly is. Between this and one particular bold lighting choice in the second act, where the entire auditorium is involved in the lighting cue, there are moments where the grandeur and magnitude of what is happening on stage feel like the work extending out into the audience and welcoming us as part of the ensemble.
Thin on story and more an exercise is theatricality than a truly great tragedy, The Mongol Khan nevertheless makes a strong impression on its London debut. Performed and crafted with precision and a “more is more” philosophy that is sure to be a crowd pleaser, this exciting and awe-impairing production will have many delving deeper into what the arts of other cultures have to offer, which is ultimately the biggest triumph the show could ask for.
The Mongol Khan plays at The London Coliseum until December 2nd
For ticket and information visit https://londoncoliseum.org/whats-on/the-mongol-khan/
Photos by Katja Ogrin