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The Mongol Khan

The Mongol Khan


London Coliseum

THE MONGOL KHAN at the London Coliseum


The Mongol Khan

“its scale is epic, almost biblical”

Apparently, “The Mongol Khan” is a milestone for Mongolian theatre. It marks the first time that a play has been exported outside of the country. To say that it is an eye opener is an understatement. For one, Mongolia itself is still a bit of a closed book to most Londoners, let alone what it has to offer culturally. Written in the late nineties by national playwright Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, “The Mongol Khan” packs in millennia of tradition into three thousand lines of verse. On completion, Bavuu stated that ‘when I die, I will look back and appreciate this play as the zenith of my literary career’. In this respect, his friend and acclaimed director Hero Bataar has done him proud with his revival after the writer’s passing in 2019.

A soft rain falls onto a crowded St Martin’s Lane outside the London Coliseum. But up close, the showers part in an almost celestial way. Silk clad horsemen stand on ceremony while strikingly dressed performers wander through the crowds. A sense of occasion hangs in the air. The UK is the first port of call as the show sweeps into the Western World, having been banned from Inner Mongolia – a province of China – by the Beijing authorities.

Hero Bataar describes it as a ‘tragedy drama’. In my mind that is a modest account. Yes, it is tragic and dramatic, but its scale is epic, almost biblical. Yet throughout, its execution is microscopic and meticulous in its detail. A seventy strong ensemble complement the seven core players. It is essentially a dance piece. But also a kind of spoken-word opera. Translated by John Man and adapted for the London stage by Timberlake Wertenbaker, it is presented in its native language with surtitles. The text is rhythmic and metered, like a libretto waiting for the skilled hand of a master composer. Here, though, the music, composed by Birvaa Myagmar and Odbayar Battogtokh, underscores the pauses, the movement, the very breath and lifeblood of the heightened emotions.

“The vast playing space is multi-layered, almost like an optical illusion at times”

The play is set two thousand years ago in central Asia at the beginning of the Hunnic Empire. Loosely based on Genghis Kahn, it follows the fictional Archug Kahn (Erdenebileg Ganbold) and his two wives – Tsetser, the Queen (Uranchimeg Urtnasan) and Gerel, the Queen Consort (Dulguun Odkhuu). Both women bear sons at the same time. Whilst Khan accepts Gerel’s son as his own, doubts hang over his paternity of the Queen’s son – their relationship has not been physical for quite some time. His trusted chancellor, Egereg (Bold-Erdene Sugar) is revealed to be the true father but he tries, unsuccessfully, to convince the Khan otherwise. The Khan avoids doubt and chooses Gerel’s son to be his heir. Desperate to secure his own son’s position as the future Khan, Egereg plots to secretly switch the babies and corrupt the royal bloodline. What ensues is a story of betrayals, struggles, battles, deceit, sacrifice, and above all vengeance. With a body count that might even make Shakespeare take stock, bloodstains (figurative and literal) colour most of the action, words, thoughts and motives.

Central to the production is the visual impact. The creative team is too vast to single any one out, and the collaboration probably stretches way beyond the programme notes anyway. Bold Ochirjantsan’s costumes are the result of a two-year alliance with historians, archaeologists, artists and craftsmen. Consequently, we are immersed in centuries of the Hunnic world and dazzled by the jaw-dropping array and spectacle. A panoramic window to the Mongol spirit, thrown open wider still to reveal its culture in the choreography. But throw all intellectual aspirations aside and just marvel in the spectacle. The aesthetics merge as one – dance, movement, music, poetry, sound and light; and art in all its glory. Backstage must be mayhem. But that is not our concern; the magic happens onstage. The vast playing space is multi-layered, almost like an optical illusion at times – you refocus your eyes to see things you couldn’t see initially.

The lead performers are outstanding – particularly Urtnasan as the Queen whose maternal instincts gut wrenchingly vie with regal loyalty. Ganbold’s sonorous authority holds court as the Khan, battered by deception, mutiny and dissatisfaction. This is a burning production – passionate and thirsty – where the choreography is metaphor and symbolism carving through it like a sabre, gouging out its fateful finale. It simply must be seen. If you don’t want to listen to me, just prick up your ears and hear the thunderous applause coming from the Coliseum.

“The Mongol Khan” is a spectacular event. An extravaganza where Shakespeare meets Verdi. The curtain went up late. “We apologise for the delay” came the announcement, “this is due to unprecedented queues at the box office”. May these queues continue. We get the feeling they will, and you’ll do well to secure your place in them.

THE MONGOL KHAN at the London Coliseum

Reviewed on 20th November 2023

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Katja Ogrin



More shows reviewed by Jonathan:

Radio Gaga | ★★★★ | Adelphi Theatre | November 2023
Treason The Musical | ★★★ | Alexandra Palace | November 2023
Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) | ★★★★★ | Kiln Theatre | November 2023
Backstairs Billy | ★★★★ | Duke of York’s Theatre | November 2023
Porno | ★★★ | Arts Theatre | November 2023
The Time Traveller’s Wife | ★★★ | Apollo Theatre | November 2023
Lizzie | ★★★ | Southwark Playhouse Elephant | November 2023
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane | ★★★★★ | Noël Coward Theatre | October 2023
An Evening Of Burlesque | ★★★★ | Adelphi Theatre | October 2023
Othello | ★★★★ | Riverside Studios | October 2023

The Mongol Khan

The Mongol Khan

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The Two Popes

The Two Popes


Royal and Derngate Theatre

THE TWO POPES at the Royal and Derngate Theatre



The Two Popes

“James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting”


In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic world by resigning his position as head of the church; the first Pope to give up his position for seven hundred years. Elected in his place, was the current Pope Francis, a man with different opinions in almost every direction to his predecessor. Playwright Anthony McCarten sets the story just before Benedict’s shocking announcement, just as both priests are considering their futures. The play was first performed at this theatre in 2019 and returns to the same stage following its successful Oscar-nominated film adaptation.

The theatre is filled with the smell of incense and the sound of plainsong (Music composed by Anne Dudley). At the far end of a deep stage (Designer Jonathan Fensom) is a memorial for the deceased Pope John Paul II. A plume of white smoke arises, and Benedict (Anton Lesser) dressed in papal attire prepares to meet the throngs amassed in St Peter’s Square.

Skip forward eight years, and a sprightly Benedict – dressed in civilian clothes, white hair flowing – arrives home. Rain is pouring down and he makes jokes about being Noah. He looks forward to eating German noodle soup prepared by lifelong assistant Sister Brigitta (Lynsey Beauchamp) and watching the latest episode of a German TV adventure series. This is the Pope on his day off and Lesser makes the most of this role, clearly enjoying being a Pope unrestricted by the constraints of his position. Until, that is, Benedict confides to the Sister about his thoughts of giving up on being Pope.

In the next scene, a mirror of the one before, we meet Cardinal Bergoglio (Nicholas Woodeson) who talks of retirement to Sister Sophia (Leaphia Darko) who tries to persuade him not to give up on doing good for the people of Argentina. The move to Buenos Aires is shown with a change to the projection onto the three arches that frame the stage (Video and Projection Designer Duncan McLean). Some parts of the conversation are marred by discrepancies in South American accent, but Woodeson is clearly comfortable in the shoes of this amiable priest. Making the decision to retire, the Cardinal agrees to visit the Vatican to plead his case with the Pope.

Three scenes follow where the two men meet, often seated at a distance to each other across the stage to highlight the divide between them. Conversely, one scene sees them squeezed onto a small garden bench. They argue their differences despite their close proximity and the discomfort they feel is tangible. As they come to a mutual understanding, both priests hear the confession of the other under the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In a rather understated manner, we hear the tragic back stories that haunt both men: Bergoglio was unable to protect his priests from torture by the Argentinian Junta; Benedict was unable to prevent serial assaults by a priest under his tutelage. There are important issues here that could be aired further but this play is about the two priests as people and not about the wider issues of the Catholic Church.

The play ends with a mirror of the start and white plumes signal the start of the papacy of Pope Francis.

Despite the unlikely subject matter, there is much to be enjoyed in McCarten’s writing and even some laugh-out-loud moments. James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting. The performances of both leads are exceptional and Anton Lesser gives a masterclass in character acting as the pained Pope Benedict.



Reviewed on 11th October 2022

by Phillip Money

Photography by Manuel Harlan



Previously reviewed at this venue:

Animal Farm | ★★★★ | May 2021
Gin Craze | ★★★★ | July 2021
Blue / Orange | ★★★★ | November 2021
The Wellspring | ★★★ | March 2022
Playtime | ★★★★ | September 2022



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