A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012 (2)

8/10

By Luis Mario Moncada

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd July 2012

This performance was just as good as the one we saw earlier this month. Some of the Mexican actors were clearer in their dialogue – the English lessons are definitely working – although with all the unfamiliar names some of the lines could still be difficult to make out, regardless of who was speaking. The audience was a reasonable size, but still not as much as the production deserves.

I forgot to mention the death walkers last time. These were actors done up in black skeleton suits with skull faces; they stalked the dead and dying, hungry to get at them, and their touch would guide the dead body off the stage, a neat way to do this awkward task. The music was so good I didn’t notice it, though the short dance at the start of the second half had a real rock’n’roll sound to it.

The play started with one character blowing a conch-shell in all four directions, and as he did this the rest of the cast approached from the sides. They then did a rousing dance, with lots of arm movements and sideways bouncing steps. The opening scene then had prince Ixtlixochitl painting lines on his favourite slave girl, Zilamiauh, in an attempt to explain the geography of the area to her, which also allowed us to get the basics. His friends turned up once they’d dealt with the surface contours and were about to probe the deeper regions – not embarrassed about sex, these Mexicans. One of his friends, called Tochitzin, brought news that the king wanted Ixtlixochitl back at the palace pronto so he could woo his arranged bride Tecpa, daughter to Tezozomoc, king of the Tepanecas. The marriage was intended to seal a treaty between the Tepanecas and Acolhuas, but Prince Ixtlixochitl wasn’t looking forward to it, as Tecpa had a terrible reputation and had already messed up at least two previous arranged marriages. To help him practice his excuses to the king for his late arrival, he and Tochitzin did a Shakespearean homage by reprising the scene from Henry IV Part 1, where Falstaff pretends to be the king and reproaches Hal for his bad behaviour. This time it’s Tochitzin taking that role, and naturally he recommends himself as the one exception to the prince’s dissolute companions.

Back at the palace, king Techotlala is discussing the situation with two of his closest advisors. There’s plenty of scope for humour in this scene, with Huexotla in particular dishing the dirt in Tecpa in a very entertaining way. After making his apologies to his father, prince Ixtlixochitl takes on the challenge of wooing that lady, and that’s when the trouble really starts. She was determined that her future husband must give up his concubines and slave girls until her first son is born, so as to avoid any awkward inheritance issues. Ixtlixochitl will not give up his right to dip his wick wherever he pleases, given that he will provide Tecpa with a son and other children too, if she wants. A practical attitude towards sex was clearly prevalent in this community, but Tecpa remained a resolute exception, and the wedding was off (again).

This did not please her father, Tezozomoc, who threw a right royal strop when she returned to her family, unmarried. Tayatzin, his heir-apparent who arranged the treaty and the marriage, also came in for a bit of stick, but the main problem was Maxtla, the king’s first born son by a peasant woman, who wanted war so that he could inherit the kingdom through his military ability, in place of his brother the peace-maker. With the Aztecs fighting for Tezozomoc, there was little chance of the Acolhuas winning a war at this time, so Tezozomoc decided to mount a blockade and starve them into submission. Back in Texcoco, king Techotlala died, but with his last words he gave his son the best advice he could: marry an Aztec princess, so that your children will be Acolhuas rulers that the Aztecs can support, and play nice with Tezozomoc until you’re in a position to kill him. Words to live by.

So the new king Ixtlixochitl married Mayahuel, an Aztec princess, and they had a son, Nezahualcoyotl. After about ten years, with many of his people starving due to the blockade, Ixtlixochitl tried to patch things up with Tezozomoc. Tayatzin was the go-between again, and managed to arrange a compromise whereby he and Maxtla will attend a ceremony acknowledging Nezahualcoyotl as heir to the Acolhuas kingdom, while the Acolhuas will pay even more tribute than before, with the blockade being lifted. Seemed like a reasonably good deal, except that Maxtla wasn’t one for diplomacy, and his flagrant insults to Ixtlixochitl at the ceremony caused an immediate outbreak of war, just what Maxtla wanted. However, with the help of Mayahuel and Itzcoatl, the offspring of a previous Aztec king and a slave girl, Ixtlixochitl persuaded the Aztecs to leave the battle, and against the odds the Acolhuas won! Generous in victory, Ixtlixochitl let Tezozomoc live, but now Ixtlixochitl was the ‘great king’ who gets tribute from everyone else.

It’s about now that we saw Tecpa again, and time clearly hadn’t done anything to heal her wounds. Carrying a special flask, she was with a witch-doctor, asking him to cast a very detailed spell to cause all sorts of nasty things to happen to Ixtlixochitl – hair falling out, going blind, dribbling, penis dropping off, that sort of thing. She got a bit carried away and included other people as well, such as his son, but the witch-doctor kept reminding her he didn’t do third-party curses. After her long list was complete, he waved some feathers and incense smoke over the flask and told her to go through a process of burying it, washing it, etc. When Tayatzin was taking the first load of tribute to Ixtlixochitl, Tecpa gave him the flask as a special gift, for Ixtlixochitl’s lips only. But things didn’t go to plan.

Having banished Tochitzin when he became king (shades of Henry IV part II), Ixtlixochitl welcomed him back when he turned up at the post-battle celebration and carve-up of the booty, all the more so because he was accompanied by Zilamiauh, who is heavily pregnant with Ixtlixochitl’s child. While Ixtlixochitl gave a few last instructions to his generals before retiring to spend time with Zilamiauh, Tochitzin drank some of the poison himself and went berserk, killing Zilamiauh and her baby. Ixtlixochitl stabbed Tochitzin in revenge, but when he was told that the flask was poisoned, he naturally assumed that Tezozomoc had caused her death. He knocked back the last of the poison himself and went on a rampage, trying to kill Tezozomoc single-handed.

Despite a few soldiers protecting him, he was soon captured and led before Tezozomoc tied to a spear. There he learnt that Tecpa sent the poison, but too late; Maxtla killed him and headed off to find his son to remove the heir to the Acolhuas kingdom. Tezozomoc was more than happy to take advantage of this turn of events and proclaimed himself king of Acolhuas. Maxtla found the boy and killed his guard, then told his servant Tonahuac to kill the boy. Tonahuac went off with the boy, then brought a bowl with a bloody heart in it to Tezozomoc, and the final image of the first half was Tezozomoc standing triumphant, holding up the heart, now re-crowned as king of kings. (But if you know your King John, you may be wary of assuming that the Acolhuas heir was actually dead.)

I’d forgotten how much the first half was Prince Hal/Henry V, while the second half was mostly Richard III.  After the opening dance, the performance re-started with a monologue from Itzcoatl, explaining the situation as he sees it. Then Tezozomoc died, and a few minutes later his son, heir and the next king of the Tepanecas, Tayatzin, followed him. Maxtla was so incensed that his father gave the crown to his younger, legitimate, brother that he strangled him with the king’s own standard. Tacuba was looking on, but didn’t intervene; he clearly didn’t want to get involved in a family squabble, and it made Tecpa’s earlier concern about rival heirs seem quite reasonable, while the death walkers were having a field day.

With Maxtla now lording it over everyone else and suspicious of plots against him, Itzcoatl took advantage of his king, Quimalpopoca, being summoned to visit Maxtla. He arranged for a muxe (a third gender in this culture, a man dressed as a woman) to kill Quimalpopoca in Maxtla’s palace, and then turned up, all innocent, asking to see his king. When Maxtla finally confessed that Quimalpopoca had somehow been murdered, war broke out again, and now Itzcoatl played his trump card. Having manoeuvred the Aztec council into proclaiming him king ahead of Quimalpopoca’s son, Itzcoatl revealed that he had kept Nezahualcoyotl prisoner for years, and he’d grown up to be the spitting image of his dad, minus a birth mark on his face. With their real king restored, the Aztec and Acolhuas united to defeat the Tepanecas, and aside from the gory detail of Maxtla delivering Itzcoatl’s mother’s head to him in a basket, that’s basically it. The final scene, with Itzcoatl, Nezahualcoyotl and Tacuba forming a triple alliance to rule over the whole valley, was illustrated by the emergence of the triple emblem on the back wall, and sealed by the sacrifice of young Ohtonqui, the heir ousted by Itzcoatl. The boy went willingly, as it was a noble death (what do they teach them in school?), and was held up by four death eaters as a priest made the sacrifice and removed the heart. Again, the final image was of a heart being held up, not the most uplifting to us, but a fitting climax for this story.

The audience was still too sparse for such a good production, but we did our best. The line about the father and son being identical got another good laugh tonight. I noticed the arm movements more this time; although I don’t know what they meant, they obviously had significance to the characters. The symbols at the back were more mixed than I reported before, with combinations of the three main symbols cropping up as the political situation ebbed and flowed. I noticed that the mat placed under the child at the end was showing the effect of so many sacrifices, with a red stain showing up nicely in the middle, while Steve noticed a grimace from the young Nezahualcoyotl when Ixtlixochitl and Zilamiauh kissed.

The names were beginning to sound familiar to me this time, so although I couldn’t pronounce most of them, I found that helped my understanding. It’s a bit like the Henry VI’s, when all those place names make my head spin. Even so, there were parts that were still hard to follow, and although I got more of the detail I can’t claim to have followed it completely. I’ll just have to read the script when I get home.

[Post-show Wed 25/7/12 – This was reasonably well attended, and I even managed to speak briefly to Siobhan Redmond and Sandra Duncan to compliment them on their performances in Richard III. They’d been involved in a reading of Soldier back in January, and came along to the post-show to support their colleagues.

The cast who came back were a mix of British and Mexican, with Andrés Weiss (Tayatzin) doing most of the talking for the Mexican contingent. His knowledge of English was very good, but the work done by all the Mexican cast members in coming over and learning a new language was acknowledged by the British actors. The Mexican’s openness and ability to work together was also mentioned as being far ahead of the usual British experience, although the closeness which the rest of the cast had developed from working on the other plays meant they weren’t too far behind.

The changes in the length of the play were discussed, along with the strange rehearsal process whereby some of the cast were performing during the evenings and matinees as well as rehearsing. The costumes and set were complimented, and the similarity to Shakespeare’s plays was touched on as well, without going into much detail. I would have liked to ask a lot more questions, but time ran out and we had to leave, satisfied that we’d supported such an amazing cast and production.]

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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