On the dusty, well-trodden floorboards of Mongolia’s biggest theatre, magic is brewing. Among the props and exposed wires of the Soviet-era building, fantastically dressed actors mill around, waiting their turn to come on.
A woman adorned in strips of glittering fabric and crowned with fox ears smiles obligingly for the camera off stage; nearby hang racks of gorgeous costumes all to be used in the show. The air is thick with anticipation.
I have been flown out to watch the Mongol Khan, which arrives at the London Coliseum from the steppes of Mongolia for its two-week run on November 18, and the experience - from watching the performers warm up to the show itself - is intoxicating.
Acrobats bend their bodies into fantastical shapes, stacking themselves neatly into towers and writhing to simulate experiences and emotions from sex to pain. At one point, a richly robed man strides across the stage, knife in hand, ready to exact bloody revenge; women wearing costumes three times as tall as they are sway and undulate in time with the music.
The show feels something like the Lion King crossed with King Lear, and it brings together pretty much the entirety of Mongolia’s national arts scene. “It's not really based on real life events; it's fictional,” director Hero Baatar tells us. That said, “the story is quite classical and lots of people consider it as Mongolian Shakespeare.”
Literature, before 1980, meant Chekhov; many of the older generation still speak Russian as a second language. Mongolia has few plays to call its own, but the Mongol Khan is one. Written in 1998 by beloved national poet and playwright Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, the play was revived after his death by his friend Baatar in 2022 and has clocked up more than 150 showings before transferring to the UK.
Director Baatar describes it as “a tragedy drama”, one based on the massive Mongol Empire of the 13th century – and the dialogue (translated into English by Timberlake Wertenbaker) feels appropriately epic. “Strike me down, you heavens, if I am wrong!” the Khan cries at the start of the play; when his son is born, he declares: “When he speaks, may his first word be the cry of empire.”
A country of only 3.3 million people (almost a third of London’s population, but a thousand times the size), Mongolia doesn't have a thriving theatrical culture, but that’s something this play is determined to change. Sandwiched between China and Russia, it is a land of rolling, grassy hills, nomadic tribes, a proud history (the all-conquering Chinggis Khan hailed from Mongolia and is still seen as a national hero) and a culture that has been heavily influenced by the Soviets.
“We used to be a kingdom as well. We used to have a king until the 1920s. And then with the influence of Russia, we got rid of our kings,” Baatar says. “That was a big mistake… once we got rid of it, it started [eroding] our national identity. And then people started forgetting about their own culture.”
For Baatar, the Mongol Khan “is our first attempt to preserve our national identity and then not only preserve it, [but] expand it to the world, and showcase what we can offer to the world”; needless to say, this is something of a nexus for national talent.
The Mongol Khan boasts the best of the country’s dancers, acrobats, singers and actors among its numbers: Uranchimeg Urtnasan, who plays the older Queen, has been both an actor and director in her time and is today something rather akin to a national treasure. Meanwhile, Erdenebileg Ganbold, who plays the tragic Khan at the centre of the story, took centre stage at the opening festival for the country’s Naadam (tribal games festival) to deliver an epic soliloquy from the play to thunderous applause.
Strangely, British culture has also had an outsize effect on these traditionally trained actors. “We have been cradled with the works of Shakespeare from the very beginning,” Uranchimeg says, while Dorjsuren Shadav, who plays one of the princes, has played Hamlet, King Lear and even Romeo.
“They've been very active in bringing forth British culture, especially Shakespeare, British theatre to the Mongolian forefront, and they're also very happy that they're about to do the same to England,” the translator relays, as we conduct our interviews in the middle of the grassy plains the country is known for (our hosts are just as keen to show off the country's beautiful as its budding theatrical scene). Now, it’s time to return the favour: “They want to bring Mongolian art and culture to England.”
The plot itself draws inspiration from Mongolia’s rich history: set in an age of empires and warrior kings (but before the birth of national hero Chinghis), it tells the story of a Khan with two wives: a virtuous concubine and an embittered older Empress, both of whom bear him a son at the same time.
Of course, there’s nefarious trickery involved, and over the course of the play, we see the sons swapped, each assuming the other’s place; royal betrayals, battles and a struggle for the future of the empire.
In addition to the dramatic storyline, we see puppetry, acrobats, a dose of traditional throat singing and even wrestling, all of which are pastimes practiced enthusiastically by the show’s backstage crew as well as those performing.
We were, in fact, treated to several wrestling matches during our visit where the spotlight operators went head-to-head with other members of the backstage crew. The translator sums it up neatly, “In Mongolia many people wear many, many hats.” Even director Baatar is a secret pro at archery – nailing a target from a hundred metres (we're told he's competing in the Naadam games the next day) before coming over to talk about the play.
Hats aside, the pride of cast and crew are palpable: both in what they’ve created and the fact they get to perform it to audiences in the UK, as Erdenebileg points out, “This is the first time a Mongolian play has been exported abroad.”
Case in point: in preparation for their trip to the UK, the entire cast (few of whom speak any English) learned the entire translated script phonetically on the chance they’d get to perform it (in the end, they’re performing in the original Mongolian, with English surtitles). Was it hard? Yes, they reply, but worth it.
“This is like competing in the Olympics, for us. This is the West End. This is the cradle of theatre,” Dorjsuren says. “This is the UK. So this is where the best of the best come to test their guns. This is a great honour.”
And they believe that no visitor to the Coliseum will have seen a show quite like it. “We know what an amazing culture we have, we know what very unique and ritualistic people we are,” Erdenebileg, who plays the Khan, says. He spreads his hands; standing as we are on the open steppes, the wind whistles around him and the miles of green hills all around us. “And we have something to offer to the world that is truly unheard of.”
The Mongol Khan will be at the London Coliseum from November 18 until December 2; tickets at eveningstandardtickets.co.uk