The most recent play at the Swan is a collaboration between the RSC and Mexico’s Compania Nacional de Teatro. A SoldierÂ in Every Son by Luis Mario Moncada is about early Mexican history, exploring the overlap between modern Mexico and the Aztecs.
I don’t think it’s a particularly good play but Roxana Silbert’s production is spirited and often lovely to watch with spectacular costumes designed by Eloise Kazan. Linguistically the play is remarkably flat, which made the few metaphors and similies jump out obtrusively. To begin with I wasn’t sure whether this was the writer’s intentionÂ or an effect of the translation, but eventually I decided that it was intentional. There is precious little psychology in the characters and almost no character development. Intensity is gained not by language but by shouting. I don’t like shouting; it is usually compensation for actors’ lack of range and subtlety. But here lies a puzzle. We know from Richard III that some of these actors are capable both of subtlety and of complexity (Brian Ferguson and Natalie Klamar, for example). We also know from his King John that Alex Waldman is a fine actor. The lack of psychology, character development, subtlety and linguistic richness must have been deliberate.
The names of the characters are incomprehensible, unmemorableÂ and unpronounceable. There are in a crucial sense interchangeable and fundamentally indistinguishable from each other – all does raher than thinkers, all prone to quarrel rather than negotiate, all prone to kill rather than problem solve, all driven by revenge. The end of the play suggests that if the revenge ethic can be broken then progress might be able to be made, but the plot ends to quickly too tell whether this will happen. Perhaps it won’t.
I badly wanted to empathise with somebody. There were no candidates in the first half which is mainly about Ixtilochitl, played by Alex Waldman as physically and vocally stilted. When he plays Ixtilochitl’s son, Nezahualcoyotl, in the second half Waldman looks and sounds more human. I felt that had there been a Soldier in Every Son II (God forfend) I would have been able to find out something about him as a person. There were a couple of moments in the second half where I was tempted to empathise with Nezahualcoyotl and also with Itzcoatl (played by Brian Ferguson) but again the inflexibility of voice and register prevented me from doing so to any extent.
For there to be political stability and growth and, therefore, implicitly psychological development and growth fundamental change in the society is needed. A Marxist solution leads to totalitarianism and therefore will not do. I thought this might be the message of the play. ‘Chaos comes and out of chaos a new order’, says Itzcoatl. The questions remains though: will the new order be any better? The play reminded me of Howard Barker.
I have to admit that it took me some time and a second viewing to work out what I thought was going on. I decided that the doubling of characters, including mothers and sons, was indicating the interchangeability of the characters in the drama. It didn’t really matter what side anybody was on. History dominated by revenge will take its course and all will meet the same fate. At the end there is a suggestion that it might be Nezahualcoyotl who shows the way forward, but the tripartite alliance created at the end has ominous shades of the ‘triple pillars of the world’.
The costumes are flamboyant, colourfulÂ and gorgeous. Much is done to try to make the audience aware of who s on which of the three sides. There is colour coding (black and red,Â blueÂ and brown to differentiate the three groups. There are also symbols sometimes on the costumes and often repeated on the changing backdrop (snake, lion and eagle) to show which is taking over the other. At one point, for example, the lion is depicted as strangling the snake). There are some fine naked male chests. Movement is excellently handled. The opening dance and the dance of death later on are spectacular.
Luis Mario Moncada said that he approached a dramatic representation of hisÂ history through Harold Bloom’s idea: ‘through imitating Shakespeare […] the ultimate master in explaiting the void between people and personal ideals.Â ‘ The Shakespearian resonances work well. There is a suggestion ofÂ the end of King Lear with the dead Cordelia, a blood bath reminiscent of the end of Hamlet, betrayals as in King John, a chorus of citizens a la Julius Caesar. But the lifting is absurd. The lifting of passages from Henry IV Part I added little and seemed like showing off.
What I found lacking was linguistic and vocal variation. Tezozomoc’s swearing was fun for a bit (I hadn’t expected him to call his daughter a ‘fuck-wit’) but it was his only language trait. There was a wide variety of accents used but the Mexican accents were distributed among the three groups. I made no meaning out of the Scottish, Welsh, Birmingham and other accents either. Perhaps all of this was meant to accentuate the randomness of interchangeability of characters and tribes.
The text of Â A Soldier in Every Son tells throughout. It very rarely shows. It is lovely to look at, though, and there is much to think about. Bits of it remain with me.