And true to form, The Emperor gives us a conflicting view of who Selassie
ultimately was, through the voices of those who worked closest to him.
Journalist Kapuściński interviewed the surviving palace staff after the emperor's
death, and Hunter plays them all, from a dignified old valet to a flamboyant steward
whose job was to bow to Selassie on the hour like a human clock. It's another
impressive performance from the most flexible - literally and metaphorically - actor
out there, and as she recounts the story of a servant whose job was to put cushions
under the emperor's feet when he sat down, so his legs wouldn't dangle and remind
everyone he was short, a sometimes brutal story of power is turned into absurdism.
It starts off very funny, Hunter quickly endearing herself and her characters to the
audience as usual, and the light touch remains even as the story gets darker - the
camp steward is an audience favourite who gets a great little payoff at the end. The
only other person on stage is musician Temesgen Zeleke, who also serves as the son
of the character we see the most of: A minister still aggressively loyal to his late
master, even when his son's rebellion - students were among the first to question
Selassie's rule - led to his death. There's a smart moment when Hunter takes the
musician's microphone away to use it herself, as the minister tries to silence
dissenting voices, and eventually Zeleke leaves the stage to let Hunter's characters
unravel in silence.
So in many ways this is the usual story of power corrupting - Selassie's successor
was a bloodthirsty military dictator so it's not like anything improved - but told through an interesting prism of
people within touching distance of absolute power without ever getting any
themselves, and for the most part still believing in their master's goodness and
divinity after his death. It's also, of course, another opportunity to see Hunter
put her extraordinary skills to work, doing the work of a dozen actors and making it
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński, adapted by Colin Teevan, is booking until the
24th of September at the Young Vic's Maria; then continuing on tour to Manchester
Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Simon Annand.