The best intentions sometimes go awry. On paper, it might have seemed a good idea to commission a Mexican dramatist,
Luis Mario Moncada, to write a play about his country's 15th-century dynastic conflicts referencing Shakespeare's histories. In the event, this joint venture between the RSC and Mexico's National Theatre has one gaping in disbelief: it is not badly done, but it makes about as much sense as the Henry VI trilogy might in Acapulco.
All the British spectator can do is use the copious Shakespearean allusions as a guide-post. When a young prince of the Acolhuas – one of the three tribes at war in the play – haunts the taverns with his drinking-buddy we are clearly into Hal–Falstaff territory. When Maxtla, of the rival Tepaneca clan, murders his way to the throne there are heavy hints of Richard III. There's even a touch of King John about an Aztec king's discovery that a boy, long presumed dead, is still alive. But even this game of spot-the-Bard is not much help in hacking one's way through the internal conflicts of the three-headed Mexican empire. And, for all the best efforts of Gary Owen's translation, Moncada's play lacks a vital Shakespearean element: a glimpse of the common people living beyond the blood-soaked circuits of power.
Roxana Silbert's production, Jorge Ballina's design, with its floor of encrusted parchment, and Eloise Kazan's colour-coded costumes do their best to clarify matters. And a number of good actors convince us they are steeped in pre-Columbian history: among them are Alex Waldmann as an Acolhua prince and his son, John Stahl as a king striding around with what looks like a stoat on his head and Susie Trayling as his murderous daughter. But, while you have to admire the company's dedication, they have one advantage over the rest of us: they have had time to do the research that would make sense of this Mexican historical hayride.