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‘A Soldier in Every Son’, Swan Theatre production on the Aztecs

‘A Soldier in Every Son’

As part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is staging a Nations At War season, ‘exploring the struggle for absolute power and the right to lead a nation’. As every other child in school around the world now studies Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has teamed up with Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Teatro to celebrate ‘this most international of artists’ in a co-production of a new play by one of Mexico’s leading modern playwrights, Luis Mario Moncada, focusing on the human drama behind the rise of the Aztec nation... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The performance is acted out on a stage dressed as the bark paper surface of a codex...
The performance is acted out on a stage dressed as the bark paper surface of a codex... (Click on image to enlarge)

As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him (Julius Caesar).

Originally conceived by Moncada as a trilogy, and directed by Anglo-Argentine Roxana Silbert (who, inexplicably, calls the Aztecs ‘hilarious’ on the RSC website), the play has been trimmed down to 155 minutes - a perhaps daunting length for most theatre-goers unfamiliar with Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history. Albeit biased by our knowledge of the subject matter, it didn’t feel its length to us. Carried along by fine acting, superb costumes, live music and the intrigue behind the rival Acolhua, Tepanec and Aztec peoples, the story of 30 years of alliances, treachery, love and war in 15th century Mexico was brought to life in a way that only companies of the calibre of the RSC and CNT could pull off. Disappointingly, the minimalist scenery (based on blank sheets of amate bark paper) wasn’t used to best effect, though video digitisations of codex glyphs projected on the backdrop partly made up for the uninspiring set.

Moncada aims to ‘transplant characters from Shakespeare’s history plays’ in attempting a new dramatic representation of Mexican history...
Moncada aims to ‘transplant characters from Shakespeare’s history plays’ in attempting a new dramatic representation of Mexican history... (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the Mexican actors laboured valiantly with English, their RSC counterparts had to battle with notoriously unpronounceable names in Náhuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec empire. With around 30 characters in the play, some slippage was inevitable: the third Aztec tlatoani (Great Speaker, ie ruler) Chimalpopoca mysteriously became Quimalpopoca (even in the programme) and on the night we attended (July 13th) Brian Ferguson (Itzcoatl) amused the sympathetic audience by admitting his confusion at one point (referring to Chimalpopoca): ‘Oops! Did I say ‘uncle’? Forget I said uncle, he’s my nephew!’ (and that in a broad Scots accent...)

Most of the costumes were beautifully designed and sympathetic to pre-Hispanic styles...
Most of the costumes were beautifully designed and sympathetic to pre-Hispanic styles... (Click on image to enlarge)

Eloise Kazan designed some magnificent costumes, with a profusion of turquoise and painted feathers, clearly rooted in pre-Hispanic styles. She did, though, take significant artistic liberties: not a single actor (in a largely male cast) wore the ubiquitous Mesoamerican loincloth, Tacuba looked for all the part like a Roman centurion, the ‘poor peasant’ characters all wore large, stereotypical ‘sleepy Mexican’ ponchos, and as for the Aztecs with their black leather waistcoats and trousers...! Dave Price (who consulted Mexicolore on the musical background) came up trumps too with the music and effects; from the opening blast on a conch shell trumpet to the eerily realistic cries on ‘death whistles’, the whole play was punctuated dramatically and most effectively with just the right amount of wind and percussion, and where European bassoon, electric guitar and keyboard came in nothing seemed out of place - a tribute to his fine creative skills. The only (small) disappointment came in the occasionally weedy attempts at ‘Aztec’ song.

‘A soldier in every son’ is a line from the Mexican National Anthem, and an appropriate title: the vast majority of Aztec men were (part-time) soldiers...
‘A soldier in every son’ is a line from the Mexican National Anthem, and an appropriate title: the vast majority of Aztec men were (part-time) soldiers... (Click on image to enlarge)

Considering the difficulty of the task Moncada set himself, he and the production came through with flying colours. Whilst we had a few quibbles with the content (traditional pre-Hispanic greetings were sadly absent, replaced by hippy-like hand gestures; chocolate was never consumed hot; how on earth could Tecpa not have heard of the ancient ritual ballgame?!...), this production broke new ground in many creative ways, and we wish it well as it moves on (back?) to Mexico to be performed in Spanish. The final sacrifice scene, just like the entrance dance, was superbly choreographed, and Moncada succeeded not only in drawing convincing characters from the (seemingly impenetrable) pages of pre-Hispanic codices but in hinting at parallels between the often violent solutions to power struggles in pre-Hispanic Mexico and the frightening situation today, when, as Mexicans say, la vida no vale nada (‘Life is worth nothing’). What an inspired idea to use Shakespeare, that master of tragi-comedy and language, as a vehicle for this revitalisation of history...

Brian Ferguson as Itzcoatl
Brian Ferguson as Itzcoatl (Click on image to enlarge)

Historical note. It’s ironic that Itzcoatl, who plays a key role in this play, embodies both good and bad features of Mexica (Aztec) rulership: son of Acamapichtli (first Aztec tlatoani) and a slave Tepanec woman from Azcapotzalco, he exemplifies upward mobility in Aztec society and the relatively benign attitude towards slaves; yet he was also responsible for one of the most negative episodes in their history: he ordered the burning of all codices that did not legitimise the Aztecs’ rise to power, and the subsequent re-writing of official Mexica records. Moncada draws attention to both these aspects in A Soldier in Every Son.

All photos courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company Press Office.

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