Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuściński, adapted by Colin Teevan
HOME, Young Vic and Les Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg
HOME Manchester
28 September 2016 to 08 October 2016

Last year, we were fortunate that artistic director Walter Meierjohann brought Kathryn Hunter to his new HOME in a restaging of his 2009 Young Vic production of Kafka's Monkey.

Now he has tempted her back to Manchester for another tour-de-force (almost-) solo performance in a new piece, again adapted by Colin Teevan and directed by Meierjohann, this time about the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's Emperor from 1930 until he was deposed in 1974.

However this is no straightforward re-creation of events. It is based on the 1978 book of the same name by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński for which he travelled to Ethiopia in 1974, while the army was still taking over control of the country, to find and interview Selassie's servants and close associates.

Hunter plays all of these witnesses, identified only by their initials and job title in subtitles, in the same military uniform, just using a few props—spectacles, a walking stick, epaulettes, cushions—and her remarkable ability to both physically and vocally transform. We never see the Emperor himself, but the picture drawn for us impressionistically by his aides and his staff is all the more vivid for it.

All of those who speak remain loyal—devoted even—to the man they still refer to as "King of Kings of Ethiopa and Elect of God" every time they mention his name, even the man whose son was one of the victims of a crackdown on student protests—which produces one of the most moving moments in the production.

But we can see through their excuses and justifications, even if to them the situation is normal. This applies as much to the menial tasks that some servants are proud to perform—such as the "keeper of the third door" (the most important door, he boasts) and the man who places cushions under the Emperor's feet when he sits on a throne so his short legs don't dangle—as to the scandal that the Emperor was spending a fortune on expensive food and building projects, squirreling some of the cash into foreign banks and (literally) under the carpet, while thousands in his country were dying from starvation.

Selassie had some protests and an attempted coup dealt with violently, but the world became aware of the situation after Jonathan Dimbleby's 1973 documentary film The Unknown Famine was released. This was the beginning of the end for the Emperor, but, we are told in a final subtitle, the regime that took over from him was responsible for millions more deaths from famine and mass killings.

The play feels important both politically and historically, but it is also told with great humour and sometimes with genuine sadness for the man that is beloved by all of our narrators.

Hunter is joined on stage by musician and singer Temesgen Zeleke, who also fills in a few smaller parts and whose live music blends with recorded music and other sounds (sound designer Paul Arditti, music Dave Price) to create the perfect atmosphere for the piece. The rig for Mike Gunning's lighting design looks like it was stripped from a rock concert, but is used delicately to highlight very small areas.

It's a short but fascinating piece, played straight through without an interval, that doesn't allow the attention to wander for a moment, not least due to another charismatic performance from one of our greatest actresses.

Reviewer: David Chadderton


Comment by David Upton

A one-woman show, that it has to be said, could probably only ever be performed by such a very singular talent.

Her shape-shifting ability has already made her something of a theatrical legend and it’s a skill put through its various paces here.

Through the individual testimony, delivered straight to the audience, Hunter adopts a range of highly-individual characterisations. With little or no costume change, but a ‘wardrobe’ full of stylistic physical flourishes she positively inhabits each role and we gradually come to know all of their differing attitudes to their master.

What unites them is self-serving loyalty, removing an already remote figure from the real world in a way that ultimately leads to his downfall. One of them lauds the fact that he brought electricity to his nation “first to his 16 palaces – then elsewhere.”

Hunter also invokes a tantalising androgyny which sometimes leaves you guessing at their gender. Only once does she drop out of characters, taking a moment to sashay around the stage with an audience member, and let slip her view on Brexit!

Musician Temesgen Zeleke provides an evocative soundscape using a stringed lyre and percussion, but also briefly becomes the face of a young and disgruntled Ethiopian generation.

The tickertape facts and figures, that play across the back curtain, also remind us that tragic miscalculations by those in power, are not solely a feature of the modern Middle East.

As David says, this is Kathryn Hunter's second visit to the Manchester arts centre in a year. If it’s to become her second HOME then she’s most welcome.

Comment by Alan Hulme

An entertaining hour with a terrific actress going through her paces in a sharply directed production with pinpoint light and sound. Technically, pretty flawless all round. I'm a little puzzled about why the subject matter was chosen at this point in time and because the overall atmosphere/style is deliberately jokey for much of the piece it does rather undermine the terrible realities being narrated. But, yes, high quality stuff. It got a standing ovation on the (mid-week) night I was there, but the theatre was only half full.