BWW Review: THE EMPEROR, Young Vic, 8 September 2016
In 1974, renowned Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled to Ethiopia to chart the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie, "King of Kings, elect of God", through interviews with his loyal servants and associates. Kapuscinski's 1978 book has been adapted by Colin Teevan into an extraordinary showcase for the talents of quicksilver quick-change artist Kathryn Hunter, who transforms into a dozen different characters with the aid of nothing more than a cane, hat or set of epaulettes.
It's a physical tour de force, with convincing evocations of a flamboyant time keeper (or "cuckoo"), whose bows signal the passing of time to His Majesty; a stooped courtier who springs into action when needed to wipe the lapdog's urine off the shoes of visiting dignitaries; a mafia don-esque purse bearer, inscrutable behind dark glasses; a cautious, all-seeing recording clerk; and the shrewd Minister of Information, whose own son is one of the rebels threatening Selassie's reign.
It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of absolute power and courtly excess, full of absurdities and rituals honed over seven centuries of operation within a closed dynastic world. The threat comes from students going to university abroad and realising that their 'saviour' - who, protests a servant, did at least outlaw slavery and judicial disembowelling! - is actually an autocratic dictator, living in luxury at the expense of the people.
Director Walter Meierjohann (reuniting with his Kafka's Monkey team) lures us into developing warmth towards Selassie's eager drones, before brutally juxtaposing their regime with footage from Jonathan Dimbleby's revelatory documentary The Unknown Famine. Dimbleby demonstrated the human cost of the Emperor's "development without reform" policy: pouring international money into bridges and ring roads bearing his name - as well as 60 palaces, 27 cars, caviar flown in from Europe, and cash stuffed under the rug - rather than providing desperately needed support for the starving masses. In a poor country, observes the clerk, the security of money is a distant "thing of wonder".
The hijinks become a bitter mockery - the Emperor boogieing to "Oye Como Va" at foreign jollies (and pulling a hapless audience member on stage to do his best Ed "Glitter" Balls dad dancing impression) shows a blinkered callousness, framed by the symbolic drawing of a large curtain. Yet the coup is a jarring interruption, thanks to Paul Arditti's enveloping soundscape and Mike Gunning's strobe lighting, shocking us as much as the staff soon to be cast adrift.
The warped worship of these courtiers whose existence is solely defined by their master is treated empathetically by Hunter, drawing out the humanity in this historical tale. But amidst the warmth and humour (the servants are summoned to do calisthenics amidst a coup; in a bitter twist, a fluffed pillow becomes a hubristic reckoning), there's also incisive critique - this isn't Downton. Most damning is a familial loss, judged less important than the survival of the great leader, even as paranoia grows and these lives are left in limbo, identities erased, a yawning void stretching before them.
Hunter's consummate skill is matched by that of krar-strumming musician Temesgen Zeleke, who invites us into this world, teases with humorous effects, and then intervenes with key emotional beats, giving voice to the voiceless and acting as conscience. But projected captions show that Selassi's military successor was responsible for millions of deaths, offering a sobering view on the gung-ho dismantling of dictatorships.
It also reminds us that faith-based allegiance can be just as impenetrable as violent power structures, easily outlasting its subject. Spellbinding theatre with lingering, resonant lessons.
Photo credit: Simon Annand