Review – A Soldier In Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs, Swan Theatre Stratford

A Soldier In Every Son tells the story of the formation of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan following the death of Tezozomoc, the Tepanec king of Azcapotzalco, the usurpation of his preferred heir Tayahauh by his brother Maxtla, the assassination of Tenochtitlan king Chimalpopococa by his uncle Itzcoatl, the murder of Ixtlixochitl of Texcoco and the rise to preeminance of his long lost son Nezahualcoyot following his exile in Huexotzinco.

As you might have guessed, this new commission for the RSC by Luis Mario Moncado is, at best, completely incomprehensible. Basically, it’s about the Aztecs, but beyond that I’m struggling.

The central problem is that all of the characters have very similar (not to mention completely impossible to pronounce) names, come from tribes with very similar (not to mention completely impossible to pronounce) names and live in cities with very similar (not to mention completely impossible to pronounce) names. There are also a vast number of them meaning that there is quite a lot of doubling up for the cast.

As such, for much of the play it was not at all clear who was speaking, who they were speaking to or who they were speaking about. This is not ideal for drama.

It’s difficult to know quite how as a playwright you solve this problem (I understand that you can’t just change all these historical character’s names to Warwick and Henry just so a stupid English audience can remember them) but the comprehensibility of the plot is not a challenge which as a playwright you can afford to ignore: that it has been here leaves a production which is impossible to follow in dramatic terms without a detailed knowledge of ancient pre-Aztec history.

The new commission is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and is supposedly inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays. This conceit actually does kind of work, and at times it does feel like something of an homage to Shakespeare: there’s a bit of Henry IV young king coming-of-age, plenty of Richard III scheming, a bit of Macbeth ghost and guilt, lots of Henry VI dynastic infighting. No comedies as far as I could tell, although everyone does have almost exactly the same bloody name so I suppose that’s quite Twelfth Night or Comedy of Errors.

The production values are very RSC, with elaborate vaguely slow-mo sword fighting and the occasional (and thankfully brief) song/dance. The costumes are impressive and are actually one of the most sensible parts of the play as they are helpfully colour coded to tell you which tribe the character is from: the Aztecs had the best outfits, their distinguishing features being red body paint and codpieces made of bullets. Badass.

This is technically a joint production of the RSC and Compania Nacional De Teatro De Mexico. For the most part the cast is made up of Shakespeare stalwarts, most notably: Alex Waldmann as the prince who really liked having sex with the slave girl and got murdered in the first act by the green people but then came back to play his son who joined with the red people to fight the green people; and Brian Ferguson as the guy who was scheming a lot to be in charge of the red people but murdered the red king when he was at the green king’s palace, after the green king had killed his brother. In addition, there are a few transatlantic transfers from the Mexican company, including a few performances which – while I’m sure are superb in Spanish – left something to be desired when translated into English.

We splashed out on a programme at the interval which helped a bit with understanding what the hell was going on. Things did pick up a little in the second half, where the plot becomes primarily about Brian Ferguson going all Richard III – but for the first clear plot or character to emerge only two hours in is really too little too late.

This is one of the plays I was most excited about this year (so excited we went to Stratford, no less) but it misses the mark completely. It is overlong rather than epic and the performances are uneven; but these problems could be forgiven if the were a coherent (or at least understandable) story behind it. Sadly not.

(P.S. This was a preview)