reviewer: Megan Hyland
The Emperor tells the story of the fall of the infamous Haile Selassie, Ethiopian Emperor between the years of 1930 and 1974. The play is based on Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s book, in which he interviewed the servants of Selassie after his downfall. It is a glimpse into a world of corruption, poverty and absolute power, through the eyes of those who worked under the Emperor throughout his tyrannical reign.
The shapeshifting Kathryn Hunter plays each character with such spirited passion and vigour, with no crossover in between, each character is a personality in their own right. Her voices and mannerisms bring the characters to life in an inspiring and vast performance, transforming herself completely. The limited costume and props leave the characterisation to fall into Hunter’s very capable hands, and she does not disappoint. Every character has their own tone, and she switches effortlessly between the emotionally raw and vulnerable to the closed off and political. Through every character, we were able to build our own image of the Emperor, making him almost as big of a presence as the characters on stage.
The combination of Hunter’s masterful character acting and Temesgen Zeleke’s beautifully haunting live music created the sombre yet heartfelt tale that ran alongside the Emperor’s dictation and downfall – the loyalty and love of his servants. Although the Emperor was the main focus of the production, you can’t help as an audience member to feel drawn to Hunter’s characters. She plays them with such vitality that it becomes difficult not to become immersed in their world. And although the story itself was deeply interesting, especially since it is so little known, the production itself was held up by Hunter’s incredible talent. Her performance was pivotal to the success of the play, as any other attempt at such a bold and demanding role possibly would have caused the whole production to fall flat.
Mike Gunning’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound combined with Walter Meierjohann’s poignant directing created an intense, albeit slightly bizarre show that is not to be missed. The quick changes in tone left audiences reeling, never quite sure whether they should be laughing or crying, but Hunter made it flow naturally. Temesgen Zeleke’s music and the inclusion of the Amharic language of Ethiopia in his side characters added a subtle authenticity to the piece, making it all the more credible.
The Emperor is an honest and engaging piece about a part of history that many people know little about, creating a lot of discussion. However, what stands out for many is Kathryn Hunter’s faultless performance and energy that carries the piece throughout.
The Emperor is at HOME, Manchester until Friday 30th September 2016.
For a taster of this FIVE STAR show, please watch HOME‘s trailer…