A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012


By Luis Mario Moncada, translated by Gary Owen

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Joint production  by the RSC and the National Theatre of Mexico

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

One the one hand this is a brilliant new play by Luis Mario Moncada, using some of Shakespeare’s dramatic techniques to tell an epic story of Mexico’s early history while relating it to the present day situation in that country. On the other hand, this is also an amazing romp through many of the scenes of political machination in Will’s various history plays. Human nature is the same everywhere, it would seem, although the long process of translating this play into English and then refining the language to work dramatically, then cutting the full seven hours (I’m not joking) down to less than three may have emphasised the similarity more than intended. Either way, this was really good fun, and I’d be glad to see it again and get more of the detail of the performances, now that I know the story. As with seeing one of Will’s histories for the first time, I could only get the gist; a lot of the finer points just washed over me. And as with a Shakespeare history, I’m aware not to take it literally; still, it was a good introduction to the subject, and it’s whetted my appetite for more.

The set and the costumes created a wonderful fantasy world in which the action unfolded. The base of the stage was coloured blue – water blue – and on top there was a platform on the thrust and three raked ramps at the back. The middle ramp could be lowered to create another entrance, and the platform and ramps were covered in what looked like animal hides. Turned out these were representative of the tree bark scrolls which these pre-Mexican tribes used to record their history, in hieroglyphics. So it was as if the characters in the scrolls had come to life and were acting out the stories in 3D – neat. There was another strip of this tree bark hanging at the back for the video projections, and the floor of the stage was used sometimes as well to show repeating patterns, e.g. wave symbols to show us a lake scene. Mostly the picture at the back showed us the relevant tribal symbols – snake, jaguar or eagle – with the final combined symbol representing the birth of the Aztec empire.

The costumes blended a number of features – Aztec designs of the period,  farthingale skirts from Europe for the women, and colour coding so we would know which tribe we were dealing with. This was very useful, as the characters’ names were not only difficult to pronounce (even for the Mexican actors), they were also difficult for our unaccustomed ears to hear and recognise. The costumes also showed a fair bit of flesh; apparently the male actors had all opted for regular workouts when they realised this.

The story told us of the kings of two main tribes around a lake in Mexico, and their attempts to keep or gain power. Also in the mix were a group of outsiders, the Aztecs, looked down on by the others but ferocious fighters who hired themselves out to the other tribes as soldiers. With some nifty manoeuvring that wouldn’t have been out of place in Richard III, Itzcoatl (Brian Ferguson) ended up as king of the Aztecs and part of a three-headed kingdom, along with Nezahualcoyotl (Alex Waldmann) and Tacuba (Marco Antonio Garcia). In this culture, dying was seen as a goal to be sought after, so although it was a more downbeat ending than we expected, the play finished with the ritual sacrifice of Ohtonqui, son of Quimalpopoca the previous king of the Aztecs. (You see our difficulty with the names?) As with the princes in the tower, Itzcoatl was keen to see off this potential rival for his throne, but fortunately for him this culture had a socially acceptable form of murder to help him achieve his goal.

Apart from spotting the Shakespeare echoes, we enjoyed the humour enormously. Tezozomoc (John Stahl) had a lovely rant at his daughter Tecpa (Susie Trayling), whose arrogance and pride had put the kibosh on yet another marriage. Strong language is fine with us, as long as it knows its place, and this string of meaty oaths was entirely appropriate and very funny. One of the best bits was the casting of Alex Waldmann as both father and son characters; when Itzcoatl commented on the similarity, the audience laughed, and he gave a helpless shrug – so many parts, so few actors.

Even though it was difficult to follow, and the strong accents of the Mexican actors took a while to get used to, this was very enjoyable performance, though sadly one the world has yet to become aware of; the audience was on the sparse side, so we had to applaud even louder to make up for the empty seats. I did think the title of the play was a bit off-putting; even though it’s a line from the play describing the Aztec attitude to warfare, it suggested a much grimmer production than was the case. Don’t know what they could change it to, but hopefully they can get better attendances for the rest of the run.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012


By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me