I first started going to the theatre when I was two years old and in the intervening years I’ve pretty much seen the lot: the good, the bad, the shocking, the boring and everything in between. These days I don’t wait for the reviews, I simply book my tickets in advance and adopt the attitude that some you win and some you lose. Living, as I do, very close to Stratford-upon-Avon, my local theatre troupe is the Royal Shakespeare Company which means that when I win I really win and when I lose I often do so spectacularly.
This year, the Olympics has brought with it the World Shakespeare Festival which means that as well as the RSC we have had visiting companies too. An Iraqi group brought a magnificent production, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, while from Brazil came a version of Richard III, great sections of which I slept through despite the presence on stage at one point of three entirely naked Richards. So, as far as international companies go, as of yesterday morning the score was one either way. Then came the joint production between a Mexican company and the RSC of a new play, A Soldier in Every Son.
I couldn’t possibly précis it for you any better than the summary that is in the programme, so I’m going to quote it in full. Read it carefully. There will be a test afterwards!
The two main tribes in the Valley of Mexico, the Acolhuas and the Tepanecas, have a fractious relationship. In an attempt at unity. Tecpa (a Tepaneca princess) is betrothed to Ixtlixochitl (an Acolhua prince). Ixtlixochitl rejects the marriage, insulting Tezozomoc (Tepaneca King). On his deathbed, Techotlala (Acolhua King) orders Ixtlixochitl to marry into the Aztec tribe instead. Ixtlixochitl marries Aztec princess Mayahuel, and fathers a son – Nezahualcoyotl.
Tecpa concocts a poison intended for Ixtlixochitl that, instead, kills two of his inner circle. Ixtlixochitl storms the Tepaneca palace but is executed by Tezozomoc’s bastard son, Maxtla. Nezahualcoyotl is captured by Tezozomoc, but is secretly set free. Old Tezozomoc dies, leaving the throne to his other son, Tayatzin. However, Maxtla kills his brother and claims both the Acolhua and Tepaneca thrones.
During Maxtla’s despotic reign, the Aztec civilisation grows under King Quimalpopoca. Manipulating his way to the Aztec throne, Itzcoatl (the bastard of a previous Aztec king) frames Maxtla for Quimalpopoca’s murder and, after marrying into royalty, convinces the Aztecs to make him king instead of Quimalpopoca’s son, Ohtonqui. Itzcoatl reveals that Nezahuacoyotl is alive, and insights a revolution against Maxtla.
Maxtla is killed, and the three tribes form a triple alliance. Ohtonqui is offered as a sacrifice to give birth to a new, united Mexican Valley.
Did you follow that? No, neither did I. And it isn’t just the names. All those relationships simply blow your mind and in performance you’re not helped by the fact that the cast double up and someone who you had pinned as a father in Act One turns up as his own son in Act Two.
To be fair, it was easier to follow on stage because the costume designer had clearly recognised the problem and helpfully colour coded the different tribes. However, the play itself was so poor that it was hard to become emotionally attached to any of the characters and so I spent most of the afternoon just keeping a tally of the dead and trying to predict who was going to be reincarnated as whom.
When I tried to work out whether the play was poor in and of itself or whether the translation was at a fault, I ended up apportioning blame pretty much evenly. There was too much action in too short a time, despite it being three hours long. There was no space for character development, no exploration of interesting themes. It was just insult and kill or be insulted and be killed. And even the insults lacked variety. The translator appeared to know only one four letter word and so we had nothing but a series of variations on the f word, which we clearly supposed to find funny. I must need a sense of humour transplant.
The theatre was only half full, almost unheard of at Stratford, and a good many people didn’t come back after the interval. They were the sensible ones. I’m afraid this has to be marked up on the debit side.