Saturday, 28 July 2012

Theatre review: A Soldier in Every Son - The Rise of the Aztecs

Playing a short run (but apparently not short enough - today's final matinee was only half full) as the third play in the RSC's "Nations At War" season in the Swan, Luis Mario Moncada's A Soldier in Every Son takes its title from a line in the Mexican National Anthem, and its story from the country's oral history. The ensemble from Richard III and King John are boosted by a handful of actors from Mexico's Compañía Nacional de Teatro, and Roxana Silbert directs. As the play opens in the late 14th century, three royal families each rule their own kingdom, power shifting and being maintained through diplomacy, the payment of tributes to each other, tactical marriages and, when all these fail, outbreaks of violence. Somewhere in the background lurk the Aztecs, a tribe of "savages" nobody sees as much of a serious threat.

Moncada's play for the RSC was originally conceived as a trilogy (in fact I'm sure when the show was first announced its subtitle was "An Aztec Trilogy," which has since been changed to "The Rise of the Aztecs") and there's certainly signs of the author having intended a more epic scope that's had to be crammed into one 3-hour play.

Apparently the oral history is more focused on events than personalities, and in an attempt to bring them to life in his play the author has adopted some famous Shakespearean characters and applied some of their features to his own. So there's undeniable elements of Prince Hal in Prince Ixtlixochitl (Alex Waldmann,) whose tragic arc is the main focus of the first act. There's even a deliberate reference to the famous role-playing scene, although here the Falstaff character, Tochitzin (Joshua Jenkins,) is much closer to the prince's own age. Ixtlixochitl, like Hal, will also reject his friend's bad influence when he takes his father's place, and go on to become a warrior king - although in this case the old friend will eventually be allowed to return to the fold, with tragic consequences. The second act focuses more on the Aztecs turning into a force to be reckoned with, through the half-slave, half-king Itzcoatl (Brian Ferguson,) whose rise to power is equal parts Macbeth, Richard III and Mark Antony.

The play itself is a decidedly mixed bag: There's really a bit too much going on for us to properly care about the characters much, and some of the endless back and forth of bargaining and backstabbing can get dull. On the other hand there's the seeds of something extraordinary in the story, especially in the Ixtlixochitl section which has the bones of a great tragedy. Its climax, when the prodigal Tochitzin is welcomed back only for a Hamlet-esque switch of poisoned drinks to set up a shocking plot twist that's just beautifully handled by director and actors, including Natalie Klamar as Zilamiuah, the king's favourite concubine who's in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Alex Waldmann, however, should not be allowed to sing in public again. It's just not a thing that should happen.)

What can't be faulted are the production's visuals: On Jorge Ballina's set of a torn map, fights, human sacrifices and dance are a flurry of colour, with the actors in war paint and Eloise Kazan's bright costumes. Though the costume designs appear traditional, as the Aztecs arrive heralding a new era, their clothes become black and red leather, Aztecs as Alice Cooper. And if John Stahl's beard has had to be sacrificed, at least the sight on him in a gold feathered headdress barking "bollocks!" makes up for it a bit. This does lead me, though, to another problem with the show - Gary Owen's translation can't decide whether it wants to be lyrical or bluntly modern, and jumps clumsily between the two.

In conclusion there's a brilliant play in here somewhere, but it's not quite what's made it onto the stage. Moncada's Shakespearean pretensions are often apparent, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not, and the ending (which is unforgettable but not quite dramatically satisfying) isn't one I could imagine Shakespeare writing even on his darkest day. Full marks though to Silbert, her designers and cast, for not just making the best of a very uneven work, but also bringing great clarity to a convoluted story spanning multiple generations of unpronounceable names.

A Soldier in Every Son - The Rise of the Aztecs by Luis Mario Moncada in a translation by Gary Owen has now finished its run at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

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