I’m sitting in the stalls of Ulaanbaatar’s National Sports Stadium. Glossy-coated horses gallop around the race track; in the distance, yellow-clad tower blocks stand out against a backdrop of rugged green mountains. The horses are joined by contortionists, yaks, camels, dancers in national dress, wrestlers, archers and Harley Davidson motorbikes. Bursts of coloured smoke puff up into the sky and everyone kneels towards the stage, as a large portrait of Genghis Khan – the twelfth-century leader of the Mongol Empire, known for conquering land from Beijing to the Caspian Sea – is unveiled. Song, dance and puppetry ensue, in what can only be described as a sort of Olympics-meets-Eurovision fever dream.
This is the opening ceremony of Naadam, one of Mongolia’s biggest holidays: a national festival held every July to celebrate the country’s independence and nomadic culture. Colourful, dramatic, full of energy – the spectacle isn’t too dissimilar to parts of ‘The Mongol Khan”’, the epic Mongolian musical arriving at the London Coliseum this month.
Bordered by China and Russia and with a population just a shade over three million – despite having a land mass more than six times the size of the UK – it’s safe to say that Mongolia is still a mystery to most Londoners. With that in mind, ‘The Mongol Khan’ is something of a first, a theatrical extravaganza aiming to showcase what the country has to offer.
The show’s West End arrival marks the beginning of what is hoped to be a knock-out European run. But, with a 70-strong cast and various challenges to bring the production up to West End standards, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. The production was recently banned from performing in Inner Mongolia – a province of China – due to growing restrictions on Mongolian culture by Beijing: Chinese authorities reportedly shut down power, blocked 130 production staff and put the cast under constant surveillance.
A Mongol epic
‘People consider this to be Mongolian Shakespeare,’ says Hero Baatar, the show’s director, welcoming me into the show warmly. I later find out Baatar has had a wild career for his 44 years: he started as a cartoon animator, before moving into political PR, TV broadcast, painting and now theatre.
‘The Mongol Khan’ was written in 1998 by the late Mongolian writer, Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, who wanted to explore the philosophy of what makes a good leader – or ‘Khan’.
‘Mongolian theatre can get very absurdist,’ says Baasanbuu Shinebayar, who plays Prince Khuchir. ‘This play is the second edition [of Bavuu’s play], it’s an artistic continuation.’ He explains that the canon of Mongolian theatre as we understand it is relatively new, dating back to the Nineties, not long before this story was written.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s significant to flag that it’s not about Genghis Khan (known by locals as Chinggis) and his Mongol Empire. He’s a notorious figure in the West, although a legendary leader here, with Mongolia’s only major airport named after him and a colossal, 130-foot-tall equestrian statue of him a major landmark not far from the capital.
‘The Mongol Khan’ is in fact about the Hunnic, or Hunnu Empire, which was founded in 209 BC and helped to lay down the framework for Mongolian statehood more than 1,000 years before Chinggis was born. Mongolian history books believe that the Chinese Qin and Han dynasties constructed the Great Wall to protect themselves from attacks from the Hunnic Xiongnu Empire, and that the western Huns migrated to Europe and settled in what is now Hungary. ‘This show is the first attempt to properly visualise the Hun empire,’ says Baatar. ‘It creates a new door to history.’
‘The Mongol Khan’ is historical fiction, set 2,000 years ago in central Asia at the start of the Hunnic Empire. The plot is brutal. It follows Archug Khan and his wife, who finds herself pregnant despite them having no sexual interaction for two decades. Coincidently, two princes are born at the same time: it turns out the wife betrayed the Khan with his assistant, Chancellor Egereg. A horrifying plan hatches to switch the babies and a succession battle ensues, the empire itself at stake.
Thematically, the story has everything you’d expect from a Shakespearean tragedy: power struggles, tragedy, violence, love, greed, deceit, betrayal. ‘We’ve been trained by the works of Shakespeare from the very beginning,’ says Urtnasan Uranchimeg, who plays Queen Tsetser. ‘This is why we’re able to deliver this play so effectively.’ Moments are bleak and hard to watch, others are joyful and visually stunning.
Some meandering moments in the second half aside, it’s a pure pleasure to watch. The cast is massive, featuring Erdenebileg Ganbold (Mongolia’s answer to Paul Mescal), playing Archug Khan, joined by six other star actors. Dancers, contortonists, puppeteers make up the rest of the show, creating one mass visual spectacle that runs like Technicolor clockwork.
I watch the one-hundred-and-fifty-first run of the show at the Mongolian State Academic Theatre: a red-painted building not far from Ulaanbaatar’s central square, built by the Soviets in 1960. This production is in English, with an almost-perfect translation of the Mongolian script: no easy feat to pull off when only one cast member speaks the language fluently.
At the Coliseum in November, though, most of the shows will be in Mongolian, with English surtitles. ‘The native Mongolian language is beautiful, it’s quite impossible to convey the same feelings in the English language,’ says Shinebayar. ‘Mongolian is very guttural: everything comes from the throat and from the lower side of your mouth. The English language is spoken with your mouth boxes, so pronouncing ‘L’ and ‘W’ was especially challenging.’
Another challenge will be adjusting to the West End stage: this theatre has a capacity of only 550 capacity, the Coliseum has 2,359. Helping to fill the space and add extra pizzazz, the London production will also see a dragon puppet by designer Nick Barnes, who worked on the award-winning puppets for ‘Life of Pi’.
On the road
Outside of the city, Mongolia feels mesmerizingly untouched, like it could be part of another century, or planet. It’s easy to see how Mongolian shamanism, which revolves around philosophies about the earth and respecting nature, still plays a huge part in many people’s lives here. Half of all Mongolians might live in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, but there’s still a significant portion of its population who live a nomadic lifestyle, moving through the steppe with their lives on the (non-existent) road.
But back to the city: speaking to locals about the show, I can sense a genuine sense of pride attached to ‘The Mongol Khan’. It is a massive deal here. Historically, Mongolia has never been a huge cultural export (bar The Hu, the folky metal band who played at Glastonbury this year). ‘This is the first time a Mongolian play has been exported abroad, even to Russia,’ says Suga Bold-Erdene, who plays Chancellor Egereg. ‘So, this is a huge momentous step towards achieving something that’s truly global.’
It’s significant that Britain will be the first on the show’s hit list: the UK recognised Mongolia’s independence before any other western country and was the first to establish diplomatic relations 60 years ago. The cast and crew also view London’s West End as the absolute ultimate. ‘This is like competing in the Olympics for us,’ says Shinebayar. ‘The West End is the world’s cradle of theatre, where the best of the best come to test their guns. This is a great honour.’
Time Out travelled to Mongolia as guests of ‘The Mongol Khan’.
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