HOME’s latest production The Emperor sees Kathryn Hunter return after the impressive Kafka’s Monkey. Directed by Walter Meierjohann, and adapted by Colin Teevan from the original text by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, this is a portrait of Ethiopian ‘King of Kings’ Haile Selassie put together from accounts of members of his court immediately after he was overthrown in 1974. By their nature, these accounts are unreliable and deferential, creating a fascinating base from which to build the man.
If you’ve seen Kathryn Hunter you’ll know what a physical, emotive and versatile actor she is. For this production running at around seventy minutes, she is joined by Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, whose music not only adds an evocative emotional layer, but also defines absence when he is not on stage. Kathryn Hunter expertly pieces together the disparate characters from the Royal Court – chauffeur, pillow manager, third door opener, zookeeper – to develop the portrait of Haile Selassie. We see the myth and aura of the man who lives in unbelievable opulence whilst his country starves; we see how he maintains power; we see how hard it is to rebel.
But this is not just a play about the man that brought Ethiopia to its knees. This is a parable about the way one man can control a nation for his own gain, presented in the style of Kafka or Dostoyevsky. As the play develops, there is space in the text for us to consider the relevance of this play to our own world. We would like to think that this is a unique story, but in reality it is being repeated in front of our eyes throughout Africa, the Middle East, North Korea, Russia and even in Europe. There’s a lovely and surreal dance scene half way through that suddenly brings the story to the present, and it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. In fact there is a part of me that wants to buy into the man and the myth, despite knowing what he has done; there lies the power of this play.
Kathryn Hunter’s incredible performance means that it is possible to engage solely through the characters she creates. Temesgen Zeleke’s music alone is moving and works perfectly with the story. But behind the show, there is a depth to the topic that reminds us that what is happening here on stage is being repeated on our TV screens again and again. One of those plays that sits in your head and demands your attention long after you leave.
Runs to 8 October. There is a very good trailer for this production here.