Mongolian Epic, The Mongol Khan arrives in London with all the lavish national majesty of an Olympic opening ceremony and a story fit for the grandest of tragic opera. Indeed, had Giuseppe Verdi had the good fortune to encounter a Mongolian storyteller there is little doubt in my mind that some variation of The Mongol Khan would now be part of the accepted canon. It is to all our good fortunes this did not come to pass, for setting arias in place of this superlative tapestry of spoken word, song, dance, acrobatics, and puppetry would be gilding the lily indeed.
The story itself, written in 1998 by acclaimed Mongolian writer and poet Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, is artistically grounded in, though not bound by the 4th to 6th Century Hunnic Empire. It follows the glories, tribulations, and tragedies of fictional ruler Archug Khan (renowned Mongolian actor Erdenebileg Ganbold). Though garbed in the technicolour glories of the Hunnic Empire, he is absolute monarch of the 3rd Century BCE Hunnu Empire. The Hunnu, if an introduction is needed, were the powerful nation which prompted the ancient Qin and Han dynasties of China to build a certain Great Wall.
Coveting the throne is The Khan’s trusted advisor Egereg the Chancellor (Bold-Erdene Sugar), who has cuckolded the King, and produced a false heir with Tsetser the Queen (Uranchimeg Urtnasan). The perpetuation of the Khan’s line is thus imperilled when the advisor swaps his child, for the Khan’s true son, sired on his beloved Gerel the Queen consort (Dulguun Odkhuu). When Egereg’s child grows up to be a monstrous Caligula in the making, not only the Khan’s lineage, but the fate of the empire itself hangs in the balance.
The perilously high stakes of The Mongol Khan demand the most spectacular of productions and boy does Director & Executive Director Hero Baatar deliver. A cast of 70 of Mongolia’s finest dancers, acrobats, singers and of course actors (every single principal actor is multi-award winning in their own right) are marshalled into a glorious, sweeping monsoon of dance, song, and high drama.
Costume Designer Bold Ochirzhantsan spent 2 years meticulously developing each outfit, and it shows. The richly attired host attending the splendidly enrobed lead characters boasts intricate masks, some tasselled, some detailed with tall, slender plumes, whilst still others sport guises inspired by Shamanic traditions. When set into meticulously, and extravagantly choreographed motion under Bayarbaatar Davaasuren, Khashkhuu Khatankhuyag, and Enkhjargal Sharaa, the result is frequently awe-inspiring, and never less than eye-demanding. Daring, ambitious and dazzling, Hero Productions has assembled a seriously talented troupe of performers.
The twin foxes, traditional guardians of infant Mongolian royalty, number amongst my personal favourites. Attired in glittering robes and complete with ears, their merry capers prove a constant delight. As symbols of the troubled royal lineage, they are also touched with a gentle pathos.
The score from Composers Birvaa Myagmar and Odbayar Battogtokh is consistently evocative whether offering propulsive, percussive dance, romance-laden melody, or agony-laced lament. This fully orchestral score, heavily augmented with traditional Mongolian instrumentation is recorded, and though it has been captured with high fidelity, the show would benefit from live instrumentation, particularly percussion. That said, this critic enjoys the feeling of heavy bass thrumming through his bones and is ready to acknowledge that tastes vary.
In terms of sheer artistic achievement, The Mongol Khan is quite literally fantastic. The production is lovingly crafted, with pinpoint attention to detail paid to each and every respect. Artistic Director Tsoggerel Gonchig and Art Designer Ganzorig Dangaa conspire to paint a beautiful scene, animated backdrops bringing fire, storm, and serene moonlight into proceedings, whilst elegant metalwork manifests barriers both real and metaphorical to our heroes’ and villains’ ambitions. Completed by Andrew Ellis‘s consistently magical lighting scheme, the result is simply wonderful. When Nick Barnes‘s sophisticated puppetry brings forth a fire-breathing dragon in the second act, it fits right in.
However, for all the amazing bells and whistles, the story’s the thing with The Mongol Khan. Yes, it’s a tale of larger-than-life characters: of course it is. These are embodiments of an entire culture, carrying the weight of the Hunnu, the Hunnic and all the centuries of Mongolian culture since. Undaunted, Erdenebileg Ganbold brings immense gravitas, and redoubtable nobility to Archug Khan, his voice rich and rounded, marking him as a King with or without English translation. Placed on stage with less accomplished performers, he might steal every scene just standing to one side. However, the principal cast is excellent throughout.
Bold-Erdene Sugar is a fantastically fleshed-out despot, a villain presiding over a house of slaves attired in skin-tight suits speaking to flayed skin and naked tendons. As his offspring Achir the cuckoo Crown Price, Dorjsuren Shadav creates a juvenile monster to rival John Hurt’s memorable turn as Roman horror Caligula in I, Claudius (1976). In contrast, Uranchimeg Urtnasan‘s adulteress Queen strikes a more complex figure, her motives for abandoning the Khan’s bed unclear, but not her capacity to give love to man or child. Completing the ill-fated quartet, Dulguun Odkhuu‘s consort conjures a dream of tender, devoted feminine beauty – far from weak, but unsuspecting of evil in others.
Placed into each other’s orbit, tragedy is inevitable, though the grandeur and scale of the ensuing disaster may take you by surprise. The emotional and mythical weight of their dealings is further emphasised by cunningly choreographed dance teams which echo or amplify their actions. Blows are delivered with cinematic stop-motion perfection, rippling through multiple bodies before landing. Emotional turmoil thrums through masked avatars attending both heroes and villains. The Mongol Khan under Hero Baatar conveys its meanings through ‘show’ every bit as much, maybe more than it tells. Climactic scenes, be they full-stage battles, or hauntingly beautiful meetings with fate will live on in audience memories long after the curtain falls.
In many ways, this is a spoken-word Opera, with speeches and conversations declaimed with all the weight and dynamism of Wagner arias. You can mark each moment when a composer would break each character into song, and be glad such heresy wasn’t countenanced. John Mann‘s English translation via supertitle and Timberlake Wertenberker‘s adaptation certainly allow the non-Mongolian to understand the intricacies of proceedings, but the passion, emotion and physical weight of each actor’s performance conveys abundant meaning. Perhaps proceedings didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but I certainly cared for the characters and their fates and not just the continually sensational displays of physical artistic excellence.
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of diplomatic ties between Mongolia and the United Kingdom, and The Mongol Khan is a wonderful artistic gift from one ancient nation to our somewhat younger one. With tickets starting at £30, it’s also more accessible than many shows playing the West End outside of Ticket Lotteries and Rushes.
All in all, The Mongol Khan is a fine tribute to the indomitability of the Mongolian spirit, embodied by Archug Khan, and though beset on all sides, this show makes one thing very clear: the Hunnu Empire which terrified ancient China, has given rise to a proud, and culturally rich modern Mongolia. Tragedy may beset The Mongol Khan, but nobility, sacrifice and duty to the nation ultimately offer hope for the future. A happy ending would be an offence to the dramatic arts, but the themes of the play more than justify The Mongol Khan seeking to transcend mortal strife in the final reckoning.
Truly spectacular in every respect, The Mongol Khan is an illuminating theatrical adventure. Mongolia is lending a small army of its finest performing artists and creators to London and it shows. Only in town until the 3rd of December, this is a show not to miss.
The Mongol Khan is a Hero Entertainment production.