The story is fictional, or so an article in the show’s programme tells readers. In part, this is because relatively little is known about the Hunnu, who existed more than 1,000 years before the famed Mongolian leader Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227) came along. There are no inscriptions or complete sentences in Hunnish, an extinct language, so The Mongol Khan is instead presented in Mongolian, with English surtitles. The show is not without controversy. In September 2023, its run in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, was shut down by Chinese authorities very suddenly. Actors and everyone else working on the show, including six British citizens, were ‘expelled from the theatre building’, according to the production, and patrons who had purchased tickets and had already started taking their seats in the theatre were ordered to leave. Officially, this was due to a power cut, though quite why this in itself would cause an entire run to be cancelled is unclear.
It’s difficult, at face value, to classify what The Mongol Khan is – let’s just call it a play with music and dance. There wasn’t any singing, though the music and choreography was at times akin to the sort of thing one might see in musical theatre. The narrative has sufficient plot twists, enough to keep the audience’s attention, and there’s no shortage of things to look at: besides the surtitles, which seemed to keep pace with the spoken dialogue very well, the lighting design (Andrew Ellis) is extraordinary, as is David Gregory’s sound design. The former brings scenes to life while the latter was spot on, well balanced and always, at least from my vantage point, at a perfectly comfortable volume.
Knives and swords come out periodically, and often enough to make one wonder whether Shakespeare’s tragedies may have been an influence in the creative process. Archug Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold, a celebrated actor in Mongolia) rules over the Hunnu Empire, with an appropriately authoritative booming voice – by contrast, his named successor Achir, The Crown Prince (Dorjsuren Shadav) is immature and far from statesmanlike. The show’s conclusion, while full of hope for the future, isn’t exactly definitive.
The Khan demonstrates some compassion towards Gerel, The Queen Consort (Dulguun Odkhuu), with poetic and romantic vocabulary that verges on overkill but nonetheless proved to be a striking contrast from the rulings, commands and proclamations. The scene in question results in impressive stage flying – even in the poignant moments the commitment to wow the audience with superior production values is relentless.
It would seem no expense has been spared in staging this production, with a ‘supporting company’ (that is, ensemble) of about seventy, including stuntpersons, contortionists and dancers, as well as seven principals. In other words, there aren’t that many London theatres that could even accommodate a production of this scale. The costumes, while showcasing traditional Mongolian forms of dress, were often too similar to tell one character from another. The music might, I suspect, have been a bit relentless for some, almost continuously playing, even during moments of calm and collected spoken dialogue.
Egereg (Bold-Erdene Sugar), listed as ‘The Chancellor’, here a key advisor to the Khan, recalls “the hardened nipples I used to stroke” when thinking of his lover, one of several lines in the translation that attempted to bring some humour into an otherwise po-faced and stuffy atmosphere in a royal court that rarely, if ever, threw a party. I’m not sure quite how many people are going to be charmed enough to visit Mongolia as a direct result of seeing this production (one of the show’s aims is to help generate tourist trade) – or indeed have the means to do so in a cost of living crisis. That said, this production is a spectacle, and a gloriously excessive one, and if you feel you’ve had your fill of stripped-back, minimalist shows, this is a show worth having on your radar.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mongolia 2000 years ago. A brutal succession battle threatens the very stability of the Empire. As the great Khan struggles to maintain his supremacy, a plot hatches that will forever alter the balance of power.
Mongolia’s leading theatre company comes to the UK for the very first time with a lavish production performed by an ensemble of over 70 world-class performers. This gripping story is brought to life with a haunting score, dance, and puppetry, with elaborate sets and costumes all inspired by archeological findings and nomadic traditions of the ancient Hun culture of Central Asia from the Hunnu Empire period.
The creative team includes Hero Baatar (Director), Amundra Amartuvshin and Yesunmunkh Myagmar (Executive Producers), Bayra Bela and Unurmaa Janchiv (Producers), Oliver King (General Manager), Lkhagvasuren Bavuu (Writer), Timberlake Wertenbaker and John Man (English Adaptation), Nick Barnes (Puppet Design), and David Gregory (Sound Design).
THE MONGOL KHAN
Written by Lkhagvasuren Bavuu
Adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker and John Man
Directed by Hero Baatar
The Mongol Khan
17 Nov 2023 – 2 Dec 2023