This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs, a play by Luis Mario Moncada translated by Gary Owen, Compania Nacional de Teatro de Mexico / Royal Shakespeare Company Co-Production, 30 June 2012 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
By Christie Carson, Royal Holloway University of London
If a horse created by a committee is a camel then what is a national history created by a cross cultural collaborative process? Theatre has been used by many nations to build their identity, to construct their national character therefore what happens when that construction process (or deconstruction/reconstruction process) is put in the hands of people who are not from that culture? Inevitably a hybrid emerges which has hints of both cultures but does not really do justice to either of them; this is I am afraid what happens in the The Rise of the Aztecs which owes as much to The Tudors and Eastenders as it does to Shakespeare’s History plays. While it was an entertaining evening in the theatre I feel none the wiser about the formation of the nation of Mexico.
This production combined an established RSC director, Roxana Silbert, with a cast that brought together British and Mexican actors. In contrast to the other two productions I have reviewed for the Year of Shakespeare this combination seems to muddy the water most of all. The Comedy of Errors was a production by the RSC in English using Shakespeare’s text but it allowed a visiting director to inspire the cast to imbue the story with some of his non-British experience. Romeo and Juliet in Bagdad brought a production created entirely outside of Britain with a cast that lived the life they were describing on stage. The first production was linguistically accessible but at times awkward for its audience and actors because of its unfamiliar references to terrorism and torture. The second production was entirely comfortable for the actors on stage but a barrier of experience, as well as language, was created for a non-Arabic audience. A Solider in Every Son tries valiantly to draw these two types of theatrical experience together but I would suggest does not manage to please anyone as a result. It is a production that can best be described as Mexish, or perhaps Britican.
The story begins with Ixtlixochitl (Son of Techotlala, Prince and later King of Texcoco), drawing a map of the region on the body of a young slave girl while describing the home territories of the three warring nations that will form the centre of the play’s action. It does not take long to distinguish between the members of the three tribal nations as they are helpfully colour-coded; in brilliant turquoise textiles for the peaceful Acolhuas; brown fur and feathers for the violent warriors the Tepanecas; and black leather street gear with red body paint and plumage for the Aztec nation, who are depicted as pragmatic mercenaries. It is also quite clear from the outset that Ixtlixochitl is the boyish Hal waiting for his moment to reign by spending time in unsuitable company having an extremely good time. There is a scene which leaps directly out of Henry IV Part 1 in which Ixtlixochitl (Hal) and Tochitzin (Falstaff) rehearse his visit to his father the King. However, this Hal is married off before the battle of Agincourt begins and is deeply attached to his lovely young slave girl whom he hopes to impregnate with a son before the nuptials are enforced. The spurning of the tempestuous daughter of the Great King of the Tepanecas and her magical revenge seem to evoke The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth in equal measure. The fact that her father has a strong Glaswegian accent confuses matters further. Is he meant to be the parallel to the King of France but in the guise of the enemy within the nation? This confusion is compounded when this King (Tezozomoc) has two sons, one legitimate and one not, who end up in a battle to the death. Suddenly we seem to be in King Lear and yet it is the bastard son that wins and I am thoroughly confused.
This rather freewheeling approach to the canon is very reminiscent of what was taking place during the Globe to Globe Festival. Given just one shot at presenting the Shakespeare tradition of their nation to an English audience many of the companies made an effort to illustrate how well versed they were in all of Shakespeare’s stories and characters. For example there were three witches in the National Theatre of China’s production of Richard III. And in this production, as well, it is in the story of Richard III that the Mexican National Theatre seems to have found a true kindred spirit.
Ixtlixochitl (Hal) successfully marries Mayahuel (sister of the Aztec King and granddaughter of Tezozomoc the King of the Tepanecas) and has a son. You would think that this union would successfully unite the three warring tribes but the peace attained is short lived and the three tribes are soon at war again but with the guiding hand of Itzcoatl (son of the Aztec King and a slave woman) steering a steady path of destruction through his own family towards the throne. After Ixtlixochitl’s (Henry V) death Itzcoatl (Richard) hides the dead Acolhuas’s King’s son and heir (not quite in the Tower of London but you get the idea) and arranges for the death of his trusting brother the new king of the Aztec. The only other scene which provides a direct parallel with Shakespeare’s plays is the scene in which a servant girl (played in drag) encourages two peasants to call for Itzocatl to be crowned king. They call again and again for his coronation until he finally relents telling them he has no desire to rule, he is just a simple soldier.
The Machiavellian Itzocatl speaks directly to the audience to indicate to us that he finds it hard to be anything but the man he is when he is surrounded by so many trusting fools. The fact that this character is played by Brian Ferguson (another Scot) who is the same actor who played the wily Malcolm in David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth, Dunsinnane, on the same stage with the same director charges his words with another layer of complexity. The play ends with an unsettling truce between the three nations under Itzocatl’s reign. Seeing Moctezuma, Richmond’s obvious parallel, standing at the side of this scene of peaceful reconciliation makes an audience who knows the history plays very much aware that this story is ‘to be continued…’ While the colloquial language and modern street dress attempt to make this retelling of an ancient story relevant to its present audience it is actually the quiet authority of the Mexican actors in the company that highlights the fact that a British audience is only able to scratch the surface of this rich and deeply complex culturally specific story.
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