The Emperor at the Young Vic
A study of power without the “powerful” present, The Emperor, adapted by Colin Teevan from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 1978 exploration into the fall of Haile Selassie, provides the chameleon Kathryn Hunter with the opportunity for not one, but scores of transformations.
It is impossible to discuss The Emperor without praising the contorting genius of Hunter’s cavalcade of sycophants and loyalists. Using a single prop to define each character, the actress cycles through urine wipers, pillow bearers, zoo keepers and purse bearers, all in the employ of Selassie’s Ethiopian empire. Most of the first act is dedicated to these royal indulgences, Hunter mining each slavering phrase and twisted posture for humour.
Soon, however, the rot begins to set in, with student protests and Dimbleby documentaries eroding the base of the Emperor’s rule. Though the humour is never abandoned now it is tinged with the knowledge that people are starving and the opposition are being murdered. This shift in tone also sees Walter Meierjohann’s direction become more pronounced: silk curtains appear; gunshots and strobe lighting signal dissent; and a wall of radios brings news to the world of the Ethiopian famine. And, much as she dominates, Hunter is not alone; Temesgen Zeleke appears initially as the (extremely talented) singer and musician scoring the piece, only to take on the roles of those opposed to the Emperor.
The worry is, stripped of Hunter’s (and indeed Zeleke’s) performance the piece would lose a lot of what makes it compelling. The lack of contradictory narratives ends up dulling the impact of the multi-storyteller structure.
In contrast, when the play hones in on a single character – in particular on the Minister of Information and his protesting son in the second act – the audience gets the greatest sense of what it was like to be in and around the excess of power that defines not only Selassie’s reign but the reign of any despot or dictator.
It’s tricky, for as much as The Emperor frustrates it delights. The sketch-like swiftness of Hunter’s witty characterisations provide the play with its reason for being, yet can’t mask that many of Teevan’s voices end up sounding the same.
The Emperor is at the Young Vic from 3rd until 24th September 2016, for further information or to book visit here.