Theatre Review: The Emperor – HOME, Manchester

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor. HOME

This gripping production of THE EMPEROR is a tour de force of theatrical story-telling

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Following the international success of KAFKA’S MONKEY, Kathryn Hunter reunites with Colin Teevan and Walter Meierjohann to take on Ryszard Kapuściński’s extraordinary tale of corruption, greed and the collapse of absolute power.

Based on the 1978 book THE EMPEROR: DOWNFALL OF AN AUTOCRAT, THE EMPEROR tells the story of the decline and fall of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Told from the viewpoint of Selassie’s devoted servants and closest associates, this humorous, sad and grotesque story tells of a man living in unimaginable pomp and luxury while his people in Ethiopia teetered between hunger and starvation.

In his book, Kapuściński said he wanted to “make an exhibition of the old art of governing” and Walter Meierjohann’s production certainly does just that. Creative, stylish and incredibly powerful, this gripping production of THE EMPEROR is a tour de force of theatrical story-telling.

Adapted for stage by Colin Teevan, the taut, provocative and intimate production creates a constant sense of the mercurial and the magical, questioning not only the way in which power corrupts but how it also affects those surrounding it. Featuring just two performers – Kathryn Hunter and musician Temesgen Zeleke – the 65 minute show is beautifully staged with Ti Green’s deceptively stark and simple set design and Mike Gunning’s powerful and adaptable lighting cleverly drawing the audience into the spellbinding story.

The strength of the production lies in Kathryn Hunter’s mesmerising performance. The queen of transformation delivers a masterclass in the art of character acting, effortlessly switching between 12 characters, all of whom are servants of the despotic ruler. Using tiny alterations to costume, accent and stance, Hunter’s ability to find and communicate feeling is simply astonishing, capturing the absurd rituals of absolute power as she jumps around on stage as the Emperor’s pillow bearer one minute and wipes away dog wee from the shoes of visiting dignitaries the next.

Temesgen Zeleke’s performance is equally excellent, his live music score adding to the charged and sorrowful atmosphere of the piece. At one point, Zeleke manages to play three instruments and sing at the same time, proving he is as much as an artist as Hunter. He also speaks the words of four young protesters, weaving his way through the audience with a megaphone in hand.

While the strength of this production lies in the performance, Hunter’s portrayal is so powerful that you can’t take your eyes off her and as such, the focus is more on the actor’s skill than on the madness of power.

That said, Meierjohann cleverly uses clips from Jonathan Dimbleby’s landmark 1973 TV documentary THE UNKNOWN FAMINE towards the end of the piece to bring home the underlying seriousness of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

THE EMPEROR runs at HOME, Manchester until 8 October 2016. 

Image Credit: Simon Annand

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