Review: The Emperor, Young Vic Theatre ‘Breathtaking, Relevant’

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The fall of tyrannical regimes is, usually, a cause for celebration. Liberation! Democracy! Freedom! Finding an ‘in’ to investigating the other side of that collapse – one of sadness at the loss of power, the passing of an era, the loss of certainty and beliefs – is a tough one. Why would we sympathise with crooks and fools?

Yet in The Emperor, Kathryn Hunter has seemingly pulled off the impossible for this is a touching examination of duty, obligation and, yes, even love, all set against the backdrop of Haile Selassie’s fall from grace.

In the weeks after the military coup in 1974 that ousted His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Elect of God, from his position as absolute ruler in Ethiopia, writer/journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski visited Addis Ababa to interview all those closest to Selassie, to capture their memories, their impressions of the King and his Court, before these memories were lost forever – eviscerated in the arrival of the revolutionary brave new world.

What he recorded was the demise of a corrupt regime through the eyes of the loyal courtiers and corrupt bureaucrats, all of whom were desperately wrestling with the loss of a man and a world that not only served them well financially, but also emotionally.

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And in this stage adaptation from Colin Teevan, this fascinating tangled web of emotions and loyalties is brilliantly brought to life by Kathryn Hunter who acts out a selection of these first-person narratives and monologues in a (largely) one-woman show that never patronises its sources, but instead captures their pride at their responsibilities, the warmth they felt whenever their King was near, and their fears as the air of revolution swept their country.

Kathryn Hunter just… well, her performance is simply breath-taking. Each character is lovingly created – their mannerisms, affectations completely on point – and each has their moment in the spotlight as she effortlessly morphs from one to the next.

From Pillow Plumper to Keeper of the King’s private zoo. From zoo-keeper to Minister of the Purse. From Minister of the Purse to chauffeur. From chauffeur to Door Opener… And so on. The flow is effortless. Yet each character is so real, so vivid, that there is such an emotional flow to the piece – from the Army General battling conflict between his loyalty to his King with his son’s revolutionary spirit, to the cheeky courtier whose role is to act as a human clock – performing an exaggerated bow to the King each hour so the king knows the time – to the implicit fear in the Pillow Plumper of the risk he runs if he does not do his job as required.

Some of these roles are ridiculous (but true – and a beautiful demonstration of the indulgence that marks the moral corruption at the heart of the regime) but with each monologue, the Court is coloured in, more vividly brought to life, and yet you are as swept up in the individual stories as much as the wider political scene.

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Their stories are touching and funny. But also cuttingly observant – the Keeper of the Emperor’s private zoo observing the influence of the secret police, the Minister of the Purse observing how and to whom funds are distributed, and the longest-serving courtier finally witnessing the extent of the corruption and embezzlement.

It’s impossible to say whether these characters are male or female – gender is never specified. Yet that seems extraneous knowledge here. Instead it is the heart and soul of these characters that grab you. Their conflict between head and heart is palpable in those who are aware of the world they live in. But what intrigues most is the uncertainty Kathryn captures in those who evidently believed in the divine right of Selassie to rule – and their fears as they face the new era. How do you feel when everything you thought was true turns out to be an illusion, a lie?

Following its run at the Young Vic, The Emperor is transferring to Home Theatre in Manchester, and then onwards to Luxembourg. This production deserves to be widely seen. Not only is its talent tremendous, but the themes at its core are so relevant even now. After all, this is not a world free of dictators or corruption.

Young Vic Theatre to September 24, 2016

All images by Simon Annand.

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