Based on the book by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński tells the story of the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. This production directed by Walter Meierjohann is creative, passionate and intense.
Adapted by Colin Teevan, The Emperor makes for a gripping piece of theatre, thanks to the wonderfully creative nature of the production which makes full use of The Maria space from beginning to end.
It tells the ultimately tragic story of how Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was overthrown – as seen through the eyes of his servants. It is a story of devotion, loyalty and the way in which fortunes can change in an instant from one mistake you make.
What makes this production so strong is the wide range of ideas that are used to convey it. Instead of having a huge cast for example, the whole performance is carried out by one person Kathryn Hunter, who plays a variety of characters and singer while musician Temesgen Zeleke creates the atmosphere perfectly with some stunning live music. Meanwhile, the lighting is used to great effect to showcase the change of scene and character – this is particularly seen during the attempted coup scene, which is the most aggressive scene in the show.
While the production starts off slowly and can come across as rather one note at times due to perhaps a lack of depth in the difference between the characters, the gradual building of tension just bubbles under the surface that draws the audience into the story.
The quick and sharp changes that Kathryn Hunter has to make are smooth and it really feels as though you are witnessing it first hand thanks to the at times poetic language used in Colin Teevan’s adaptation. But at time these changes can cause confusion and it is difficult in places to keep up with who is who as time goes on.
Kathryn Hunter’s performance throughout is warm and dignified – but also there isn’t much difference between the characters that she plays apart from a few props – it would have been interesting if there was more definition of how they were all different in terms of their own individual voice. The sense of humour that comes through at times in the piece is well judged.
The use of typewriting projections at certain points allows the piece to stay focused, while setting things in context for the audience without overwhelming them. It does have a documentary feel about it, but it is also thought provoking when it comes to bringing up the Ethiopian famine. In fact one of the most thoughtful lines in the show asks: “How can there be famine when there is development?” – it is an important question that is relevant today, ensuring that the audience goes away wondering the same thing.
Walter Meierjohann’s powerful and stylish production deserves to be seen on a much wider scale, considering the relevance of the story in today’s society with everything that is happening in the world at the moment. A difficult play to watch but completely poignant and creative production.
The Emperor plays at the Young Vic Theatre until the 24th September. For more information and to book tickets visit: http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/the-emperor.