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jaydarcy
29th November 2023

The Mongol Khan review: Spectacle over substance

The Mongol Khan is a bodacious production with beautiful design and break-taking choreography but the slim story and lack of substance are baffling, bemusing and bewildering
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The Mongol Khan review: Spectacle over substance
Photo: Katja Ogrin @The Mongol Khan

The Mongol Khan is the first Mongolian production ever to play outside of Mongolia. Following its cancellation in Inner Mongolia, China – presumably out of fear of the play rousing separatist sentiment amongst ethnic Mongolians – it has premiered in the West End, celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the UK.

Originally called Тамгагүй төр, or Tamgagui tur (The State/Throne without a Seal), it was written by Bavuu Lkhagvasuren – the ‘People’s Writer of Mongolia’. It was recently restaged in Mongolia by director Hero Baatar. It has been renamed for the London run, with an English adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker and an English translation by John Man. The play is performed in Mongolian, with English subtitles on display.

Based on historical events, the gripping story explores Mongolian culture and history through music, dance, dialogue and puppetry, with elaborate sets and costumes, all inspired by the traditional nomadic culture and traditions of the Hunnic Empire. It’s a multi-sensory feast for the eyes, ears, heart and soul which could only have been improved with incense to tantalise the nose.

The cast of 70 is led by seven multi-award-winning performers.

Archug Khan (Erdenibileg Ganbold) is the Khan, or ruler, of Mongolia. His two wives fall pregnant days apart, even though he has not had sex with his first (main) wife for decades (there is a cringe-worthy line about having not inserted his “seed” inside of her for 20 years).

Ganbold is striking as Archug Khan, a bold leader who is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect his Kingdom. He is not played as an archetypical ruthless leader; he has a softer side.

His first wife, Tsetser, the Queen (Uranchimeg Urtnasan) has been having a secret affair with Egereg, the Chancellor (Bold-Erdene Sugar). Egereg is psychologically, emotionally and physically abusive with Tsetser. We see two sides to Tsetser: she can be cold, confident, sexy and sagacious but also vulnerable, victimised, tormented and tactless.

Indeed, she is icy with Gerel, the Queen Consort (Dulguun Odkhuu) – but in a patriarchal society where women are replaceable, who can blame her? With Khan planning to choose Gerel’s son as his heir (knowing that Tsetser’s unborn child is not his), Egereg forces Tstetser to swap the babies so that his spawn will become Khan (that is literally the entire first act, drawn out).

Gerel is initially an archetypal maiden but Odkhuu is allowed to offer a more multifaceted and complex characterisation in the second act, set well into the future when the babies are grown.

Achir, the Crown Prince (Dorjsuren Shadav) and Khuchir, the Prince (Shinebayar Baasankhuu) do not appear until the second act, and they never interact; their stories are told separately and quickly. Thus, it becomes difficult to care for either character.

Whilst both actors excel at playing their polar opposite characters – a maniac and a saviour – the two-dimensional characterisations render the characters uninteresting.

The main cast is rounded off with Khatankhuyag Khashkhuu as Shaman.

For a play that runs almost three hours, it is remarkable how little happens, story-wise. The show’s graphic novel is a big book but it is mostly drawings. There is a synopsis in the programme, and whilst that might appear to just be the bones of the story, it’s literally the entire thing. Rather, the meat of the show is in its production value and the performances.

To say this show is style over substance would be an understatement. Rather, it is spectacle over substance. It’s a sensuous bonanza with costumes, choreography and puppetry to rival The Lion King. In fact, where production value and design are concerned, it is to Mongolia what The Lion King is to Sub-Saharan Africa.

The show is as much a celebration of Mongolian history and culture as it is its own story, with seventy Mongolian performers all wearing multiple finely embroidered costumes and introducing British audiences to Mongolian dance forms. The slim story is essentially used as a vehicle to showcase Mongolian art and culture.

Whilst the entire first act could have been tackled in a few scenes, it lasts 50 minutes because in between each scene (and sometimes after a mere few lines), there is a dazzling dance number. The show is like a musical but with dance in place of songs. At first, I found myself asking, “Why are they dancing?”. At that moment, I understood how my friends who do not see much musical theatre feel when a character suddenly bursts into song.

The performers excel at telling stories and creating emotion through dance. Most noticeably, the core four main characters are often accompanied onstage by a score of backing dancers who seemingly double as their entourage and their emotions. This is at its best during the scene in which Egereg encourages and eventually forces Tsteser to swap the two babies, with the backing dancers, all dressed in anatomical bodysuits, bending and breaking as Egerg abuses both Tstser and them.

The entourages also serve as physical extensions of the characters they support. For instance, when Khan pulls out a sword, the backing dancers follow suit, each of their swords pointed closer to the intended victim, with the dancer farthest away from Khan placing their knife on the intended victim’s throat.

There is an animated feel to the production, like a real-life comic or manga. Press and guests were kindly gifted a £50 graphic novel, and the production feels very much like that novel, with its vivid imagery, brought to life.

The Mongol Khan is a bodacious production with beautiful design and break-taking choreography but the slim story and lack of substance are baffling, bemusing and bewildering. The story of succession offers nothing new; it is a story that has been told many times before, in many different ways. If you watch this show for its story, you will leave dazed and confused. If you watch it on a superficial level, you will leave dazzled and delighted. Alternatively, you can view it as a joyous celebration of Mongolian history and culture, brought to life through a story that is simple, yes, but also fun and intriguing.

The Mongol Khan runs at the London Coliseum until December 2, 2023.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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