Nestled between China and Russia, the landlocked country of Mongolia remains largely unexplored by Westerners. Now, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the UK and Mongolia, The Mongol Khan, an epic stage spectacular, opens for a very limited run at the London Coliseum.
This milestone production marks the first time a Mongolian play has been performed to European audiences, and it’s quite the introduction to the traditional nomadic culture of the nation.
The play was originally written in 1998 by Mongolian writer and poet Lkhagvasuren Bavuu and was called Тамгагүй төр, or Tamgagui tur (The State/Throne without a Seal) and has been renamed for the London run, with an English adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker and an English translation by John Man, though it is performed in Mongolian with English surtitles.
Directed by Hero Baatar, The Mongol Khan takes us back 2000 years, and introduces us to Archug Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold), a powerful and god like ruler with a deep sense of duty and devotion to the state. When two sons are born by two Queens (Uranchimeg Urtnasan and Dulguun Odkhuu) just days apart, a sinister plot is enacted by the Chancellor (Bold-Erdene Sugar) to change the dynasty forever.
It’s almost Shakespearean in style and structure, and not least because it’s a tragedy that might even have shocked the bard. The language is lyrical and metaphorical, and the characters mull over their thoughts and speeches. That does mean the story, which by the usual London standards is quite thin, gets drawn out over the near three hour running time.
The London Coliseum is a big stage, one of the biggest in London, and The Mongol Khan manages to fill every square inch of it; there’s nothing else quite like this in London. A cast of over seventy perform intricate and meticulously choreographed (Bayarbaatar Davaasuren) routines, all to a thundering original score from Birvaa Myagmar.
Extravagant costumes from Bold Ochirjantsan mesmerise the audience as massive sets transform before our eyes. Andrew Ellis’ striking lighting design adds to the scale of the production, if that wasn’t enough there’s a fire breathing dragon puppet, and the whole thing culminates in a bloody battle for power.
There’s probably more that could be done to flesh out the characters and focus the story, though this is Mongolian theatre and perhaps this is more about visual storytelling, because (unless you speak Mongolian) this is the kind of production where you could ignore the surtitles and still get the gist of what’s going on.
As an introduction to Mongolian theatre, and for many the country’s cultures and traditions, this is a triumph. The Mongol Khan is an unparalleled visual feast that audiences who see it will feel very privileged to have witnessed.