In 1974 Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński travelled to Ethiopia to interview the surviving household of the recently deposed emperor Haile Selassie. His portrait of these ghosts of a lost regime, last in a dynasty supposedly stretching back three thousand years to the time of King Solomon, is an almost fantastical image of court quite removed from time and place, hanging on to the vestiges of florid routine as progress sweeps remorselessly past them. It is these stories that Colin Teevan has adapted for the stage, with the mighty figure of Kathryn Hunter taking almost all the roles herself.
That Hunter provides a masterwork of physical performance will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen her in Kafka’s Monkey or her other semi-legendary achievements. She is made of pure protean stage material, seemingly dissolving and reforming into the different characters – shuffling valet, louche Minister of Information, sweetly dim time keeper. Neither gender nor race nor physical size are barriers to her magician’s ability to capture the essence of a new character. Yet the extraordinary thing she manages is not in differentiating these people quite as much as finding the links between them. She is playing seventy kinds of washed out, old and beaten.
The text itself is wonderfully sparse and direct, with the character of the titular Emperor, never seen, coming out only obliquely. We are forced to ask what we think of this old man trapped in the clothes of the “king of kings, Elect of God” with his pet lions and his absurd piles of pillows to keep him propped up. Should we condemn him for his fantasies, his mad talk of “development” in Ethiopia even as famine claims the lives of thousands? Or is there something in fact pathetic about the nature of monarchy and the hopes piled on the shoulders of incapable people?
This is in fact a story about belief and loyalty. All of Hunter’s characters need to believe in the emperor, who provides meaning to a world secluded from the awfulness outside. Money in a poor country, we are told, is “a thick hedge always in bloom” preventing you from seeing misery, and what money can do, Teevan implies, monarchy can do tenfold.
The direction of the piece does wonders with the incredibly spare material on which to build. Walter Meierjohann uses only a white sheet and tight and tight lighting to create the world of memory, leaving Hunter’s storyteller’s charm and rapport with the audience to do the rest. Temesgen Zeleke provides live musical accompaniment and the occasional second character, the interjection of spoken Amharic cutting through the unreal haze of Hunter’s English accent like a thunderclap.
The brilliance of the piece lies in the strange hinterland we see only vaguely, between myth and reality, journalism and history. This lion of Judah, descendant of Solomon also exists in a world where Jonathan Dimbleby reports on famine. An African dictator who seems gentle enough nevertheless brings memories of his crueller kin to mind. The questions it raises about the myths on which political order are based, and the lies we tell ourselves to accept stability, will be with you long after you leave the auditorium. An unsettling, thoughtful theatrical treat.
The Emperor is playing at the Young Vic until 24 September, after which it plays at HOME Manchester from 28 September to 8 October. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.
Photo: Simon Annand