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