The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuściński, adapted by Colin Teevan
Young Vic Maria Studio

Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke Credit: Simon Annand

There are two good reasons to relish what is effectively a 70-minute monologue with traditional musical accompaniment from Temesgen Zeleke, who primarily uses a Krar, a small, lyre-like instrument and also sings and takes a number of minor parts. 

First, this is a perfect opportunity to enjoy a painless but revealing history lesson about Emperor Haile Selassie, getting under the skin of this common-or-garden tin-pot dictator.

Secondly, under the direction of Walter Meierjohann, Kathryn Hunter gives a highly effective and varied masterclass in the art of character acting.

In order to understand her achievement, it is first necessary to get a feel for the piece. It is introduced with the statement that “in 1975, after the fall of the Emperor Haile Selassie, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński travelled to Ethiopia. There he sought out and interviewed in secret the few surviving servants of the Emperor’s court.”

Colin Teevan has then adapted the Polish writer’s reportage into a play that paints a detailed picture of the dictator, despite his absence from the stage.

This requires Miss Hunter to portray 12 different men, switching between them with alacrity and rarely, if ever, leaving viewers confused as to whom they are listening to. They include everybody from a government minister at one end of the scale to a zoo keeper, a wiper of urine and the house-proud keeper of the third door.

She does this in a military dress coat, embellishing the performance with a series of minimalist props such as epaulettes, glasses and cushions but most of all her enviable androgynous skills.

What emerges is a portrait of a tyrant who uses the mask of “development” to stash away hundreds of millions of dollars for his own benefit not only in the de rigueur Swiss bank account but also literally under the carpet.

His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God had a high opinion of his own value and that knack of all of the best dictators, the ability to bully, cajole, charm and bribe those around him to ensure that his reign is long and fruitful.

In this case, the Emperor lasted 44 years, explaining why so many of the characters on show had entered old age by the time that they were interviewed.

In broad terms, the opening section introduces the characters including the lacuna, the story then moves on to an attempted coup and its brutal consequences, followed by the eventual fall and “accidental” death of the seemingly immortal leader.

This multi-layered presentation will leave the viewer with a much better understanding not only of the dictator himself but life in the country and by extension how so many others both in Africa and beyond that suffered similar fates in the past and some of which still do.

Following it's run at the Young Vic, The Emperor will be at HOME Manchester from 28 September to 8 October 2016.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?