This show, about the glories of ancient nomadic empire, comes galloping from Mongolia like a magnificently over-the-top Cultural Olympiad. Set more than 2,000 years ago, before Genghis Khan’s almighty reign on the central Asian steppe, it begins with two exquisite dancing foxes and expands to a formidable 70-plus cast of singers, dancers, acrobats and contortionists who dazzle even if the story itself is ponderous.
Adapted from a three-act tragedy by Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, it follows the fictional story of Archug Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold). King of the Hunnus, or Huns, he is caught in a succession dilemma when his wife (Uranchimeg Urtnasan) and his consort (Dulguun Odkhuu) each give birth to a future heir. This sets off a drama of betrayal, adultery and the switching of two babies in a bid for the throne.
Ironically, as the tale of a self-sacrificing king, it is the women’s roles which are more moving. They capture the tragedy of mothers and of sacrifice, with shades of the Oresteia. Directed by Hero Baatar, it is clear we are in epic territory from the off. Translated by John Man and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, the dialogue has a grandiose, archaic and declamatory quality: characters speak in thundering statements, sometimes accompanied by actual thunderclaps. There is general sense of “crash, bang, wallop” to the action which might have tipped over into the ludicrous.
What saves the production is its stupendous sense of scale and spectacle, combining to become something of a cross between Soul of Shaolin, Cirque du Soleil and The Lion King. The choreography, by Bayarbaatar Davaasuren and Khashkhuu Khatankhuyag, is breathtaking, the dance ensemble becoming the real star of the show. It conjures both the battlefield and the court, moving with the precision of an army but drawing our eye simultaneously to the smallest, most expressive, detail, every tremor of an arm or hand carrying the emotions of the scene. They capture the martial aspects of the story but also parental torment, in their expressionist whirl. In one scene, they become slitheringly sexualised succubi, in another they look like fiery, Dantean figures.
The music, composed by Birvaa Myagmar and Odbayar Battogtokh, combines traditional sounds of whistles, bells and throat singing with a heavy modern bass and a beat that give the effect of giants stomping across the stage. The costumes, designed by Bold Ochirjantsan, are a wonder to behold, incorporating intricate historical symbols and animal imagery.
Earlier in its run in the Chinese-controlled inner Mongolia, this play was cancelled by the authorities through what is thought to have been a fear of rising nationalism and separatist fervour. The play’s meanings are very different on the West End stage. Here, it looks like cultural history heavily lathered in a commercial patina. The backdrop shows spinning planets and whizzing comets, and it all verges on the cheesy. It is in some ways the Gladiator version of Mongolian cultural history, all swords, swashbuckling and epic melodrama. But who cares when it is this spectacular?
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