Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

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.

The Emperor is at the Young Vic until 24 September. It then travels to Manchester's HOME 28 September-8 October and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg 12-14 October.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

BAT OUT OF HELL Halted By Disruptive Audience Member Photo
According to The Guardian, the West End production of Bat Out of Hell was halted during the Thursday, March 30th evening performance by a disruptive audience member.

Review: SUGAR COAT, Southwark Playhouse Photo
Sugar Coat is a piece of gig theatre, telling a story of growing up, trauma, and sex through pop punk music. A kind of rock concert meets musical, it’s performed by an all female and non-binary band, playing and singing live for the duration of the show. From the very beginning, this doesn’t feel like a traditional theatre experience: the audience are whooping and clapping along, and it’s clear that everyone both onstage and off is having a great time. 

Review: PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS, Finborough Theatre Photo
A jagged knife of a play that could cut deeper. Chronicling Russia's first annexation of Crimea, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is wielded like a jagged blade goring its victim in a furious trance of savagery. Its prophetic vision of violence as relentless as it is terrifying to watch.

AUNTIES HOUSE By Paul Stone Announced At The Kings Head Theatre, 3- 9 April Photo
Issyman Productions presents AUNTIE'S HOUSE, written and directed by Paul Stone, 3rd - 9th April 2023 at King's Head Theatre, Upper Street, London N1

From This Author - Marianka Swain

Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

Book Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICALBook Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICAL
April 29, 2022

Santa's favourite musical is back in town! ELF – the smash-hit Christmas musical based on the beloved film – returns to London for a strictly limited 8-week season at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End from 14 November to 7 January. Book your tickets here!

Exclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MANExclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MAN
April 28, 2022

Fasten your seat belts – The Car Man is back! To celebrate the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary, Matthew Bourne and his acclaimed dance company New Adventures bring their multi-award-winning production of The Car Man to the Hall for the very first time.

No Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON TicketsNo Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON Tickets
April 27, 2022

The Book of Mormon comes from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez. It's currently playing at London's Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End - and you can book tickets now with no booking fee!

Show of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICALShow of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICAL
April 25, 2022

Get yourself where the action is and experience the remarkable story of Jamaica’s rebel superstar. The irresistible new production, Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical, has come to life at the Lyric Theatre, London and the message is out. Book exclusively priced tickets now!

Save 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOESSave 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOES
April 22, 2022

The sold-out musical sensation Anything Goes returns to the Barbican by popular demand. The ‘musical equivalent of sipping one glass of champagne after another’ returns for a limited 7 week season.