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The Emperor, Young Vic, review: ‘Spellbinding storytelling of absolute power’

PUBLISHED: 15:00 20 September 2016

Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke in The Emperor at the Young Vic. Picture: Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke in The Emperor at the Young Vic. Picture: Simon Annand

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Colin Teevan has created an extraordinary showcase for the chameleon like Kathryn Hunter in this adaptation of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book about the fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, in 1974.

Colin Teevan has created an extraordinary showcase for the chameleon like Kathryn Hunter in this adaptation of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book about the fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, in 1974. Hunter embodies a dozen of Selassie’s loyal flunkeys, magically switching between them with just the removal of a hat or slump of the shoulders.

The worshipful loyalty of these courtiers is handled empathetically. While their roles are absurd – fluffing royal pillows, marking time with bows, cleaning the lapdog’s urine off the shoes of visiting dignitaries – their pride in serving the ruler is oddly endearing.

Yet this is no rosy Downton-esque reminiscing: the emperor lives in luxury while millions starve. Grim footage from a revealing Jonathan Dimbleby documentary shows the horrific cost of the “development without reform” policy – Selassie using international aid to build bridges in his name rather than modernising or alleviating suffering.

There are consequences, too, for these loyal servants living through another. When the Minister of Information’s son rebels against the regime – one of several students enlightened by time abroad – he is sacrificed to secure Selassie’s rule, a loss that weighs heavy. And when the coup finally comes, in a blast of chaotic sound (Paul Arditti) and strobe lighting (Mike Gunning), it leaves these men with a yawning void in their lives. Hunter beautifully communicates that grief.

Her consummate skill is matched by that of krar-strumming musician Temesgen Zeleke, who conjures locations, provides effects, and becomes the voice of conscience. Director Walter Meierjohann (reuniting with his Kafka’s Monkey team) wisely keeps the staging relatively stark and simple, drawing us into the spellbinding storytelling. A fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of absolute power, and a human take on a resonant history lesson.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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