A SOLDIER IN EVERY SON – The Rise of the Aztecs
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd July, 2012
The RSC in collaboration with the National Theatre Company of Mexico have come up with a production that is as irritating as it is entertaining – and it is very entertaining. Thirty years of fifteenth century Mexican history are crammed into three hours and for the most part – well, the first part, it’s an involving, melodramatic thrill-ride, infused with dark humour and action. The second part… not so much but I’ll come back to that.
There is a problem, a barrier to our enjoyment that I found annoying. It almost works like an alienation effect, keeping us at a distance from the action and the characters. Almost. It’s not so much the names of people and places, all of them polysyllabic, some of them very similar – although these don’t make it easy to keep up with who’s whom and what’s what. The problem for me (perhaps I’m alone in this but I doubt it) is the plethora of accents used by the international cast. Just as the ear becomes attuned to one actor’s intonation, along comes someone else with a different accent. It’s a rich blend but bears no relation to who the characters are in relation to each other. The three tribes represented each have a mix of nationalities and so can only be differentiated by costume. There is even a lone Scotsman embroiled in all of this. I know it’s the World Shakespeare Festival but the cosmopolitan aspect of the cast could have been used to elucidate the play rather than obfuscate it.
The plot is as factual a representation of Mexican history as an of Shakespeare’s histories – that is to say dramatic licence is king. There are many familiar set-ups recognisable from Shakespeare and that is a deliberate approach on the part of playwright Luis Mario Moncada (in a snappy, earthy translation by Gary Owen): Spurned Princess Tecpa (a compelling Susie Trayling) has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her – she even takes her own life off-stage. There are echoes of Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage, Lear carrying the body of Cordelia, Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull… there is much fun to had by the smug Shakespeare scholar in spotting all of these.
There is little time for character development – events happen at too quick a pace. Shakespeare would have made at least two plays out of the material. This is almost like a highlights package. I liked Alex Waldmann as Ixtlixochitl (a fun-loving prince, not a cough remedy – he becomes a mighty king in the mould of Henry V, even to the extent of shunning his former playmate). He also plays his own son years later, Nezahualcoyotl (bless you) and much is made of the resemblance between father and son!
John Stahl is a foul-mouthed brute of a king as Tezozomoc. His tirades and expletives are very funny as he exposes his monstrous tyranny – in this play it is the violence that shocks. The sudden murder of Ixtlixochitl, the bloody ritual sacrifice of a child… it all serves to keep the energy up and a frisson of tension, even if at times, you’re not sure who is who and what they’re going on about.
Eloise Kazan’s costumes are gorgeous – although I found the design for the Aztec tribe more than a little jarring. They look like a gang of S&M punk rockers in their Mohawk hairdos, black leather trousers and studded wristbands, lacking the air of authenticity prevalent in other costumes. Jorge Ballina’s set is a curling parchment, like an old map, on which the battles, negotiations and betrayals are acted out. The music by Dave Price is stirring and evocative, lots of percussion and birdsong. Director Roxana Silbert handles the contrasting moods and rapid turn of events expertly. For the most part…
In the second half, the action slows down and the play loses its way somewhat. With many characters killed off before the interval, there are more new names to get used to, played by the same actors. It takes an hour to tell what in the first half would have been done in fifteen minutes.
This is a pity – up until then I thought this blend of Mexican history and Shakespearean storytelling was working rather well.