The Mongol Khan Review – London Coliseum

Photo: Katja Ogrin

The Mongol Khan Review by Carla Rudgyard

From the 22nd of November to the 2nd of December, Mongolia’s leading theatre company comes to London’s Coliseum for the very first time, with its lavish production, The Mongol Khan. Directed by Hero Baatar, the story revolves around Archug Khan (Erdenebileg Ganbold): a poised and all powerful patriarch and his unwavering commitment to making profound sacrifices for the sake and stability of the Hunnu empire.

As someone totally new to Mongolian theatre, I entered the audience as an infant. Babies, the narrator explains in a booming tone, begin their life in this land with a small fox cut from fur and hung above their cradle, as a playful figure to watch. These foxes then came to life, as two giddy and multicoloured pointy-eared dancers usher us into the real spectacle: a vast sea of 70 masked ensemble members, who flow and freeze like blades of grass on a steppe with guidance from the great Khan.

Photo: Katja Ogrin

It’s a story that we’ve heard before. A brooding leader looking for his male heir. A ‘fallen woman’ damned because she was wooed by another. Two babies swapped at birth. Whilst perhaps simplistic in plot, It’s a visual feast, with sumptuous costumes (Bold Ochirjantsan) that douse the stage in red.

The whole event is steeped in tradition and history, and yet it’s not quite what you’d expect. One moment the show is rigid in its traditional values and gender roles, and suddenly it’s something a whole lot saucier. I was surprised to see the ensemble, performing as if they were one living and breathing organism, recreating desire in revealing muscle suits reminiscent of high school biology diagrams.

At the crack of a whip, what looked like at least 40 women wail and retract as if wounded. I couldn’t help but think It’s a shame that the ensemble remain masked for the shows entirety – but the anonymity of the masks does create the qualities of a Grecian chorus, as we watch them move in unison in their hoards and respond to the dialogue in such a visceral way.

Photo: Katja Ogrin

The lighting (Andrew Ellis) is what you’d expect of an Olympic ceremony; luxurious and rich. A full moon on a red sky is predominantly the backdrop behind the ritualistic drum-beat driven dancing.

The piece is performed in Mongolian but has been translated to English (English translation by John Man, English adaptation by Timberlake Wertenberker) which can be visible via surtitles which are unfortunately placed far to the right, left, or metres above the stage; meaning the non-mongolian speaking viewer must choose between watching the marvellous extravaganza or truly understanding the onstage action. At times, I wished I hadn’t looked up to read the translation, as “shut up, you stupid, weak woman” or the like, slid across the title screen as the Khan or his assistant Chancellor Egereg berated the female characters who seemed to only function as child-bearers.

In its essence, the narrative encapsulates deep devotion and reverence for the state. It’s a celebration of vibrant choreography (Bayarbaatar Davaasuren) and puppetry (Scarlet Wilderink) which is undeniably spectacular, but the strengths of this show lie in the visual storytelling, rather than its written counterpart.

The Mongol Khan is at London Coliseum until 2 December

Carla is a playwright and a graduate of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. You can find her on Instagram.

What happened to star-ratings? Read the editorial now to find out why we’re no longer providing star-ratings for most productions.