The Emperor, Young Vic, London, review: 'Witty and haunting production'

It's no wonder that Ryszard Kapucsinski's 1978 book appeals to theatre-makers, says Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor
Monday 19 September 2016 10:49 BST
Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Emperor’ at the Young Vic
Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Emperor’ at the Young Vic

It's no wonder that Ryszard Kapucsinski's 1978 book appeals to theatre-makers. In 1975, after the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie, the Polish journalist travelled to Ethiopia and conducted secret interviews with the surviving servants at his court. The results have been questioned as wholly reliable reportage and the book has been said to be an allegory of the Communist regime in Poland. But it certainly has the force of a great fable about absolute power – the surreal rituals with which it strives to maintain an impermeable mystique and the inner contradictions – told from the viewpoint of the devoted retainers who had struggled to keep the show on the road as a 3,000 year old monarchy neared its end.

Jonathan Miller released the theatrical energies of the story in a staging at the Royal Court in the late 1980s that eschewed any hint of the “exotic” as five men in suits confided in us from an almost abstract set of doors and cubby-holes, summoning up a hugger-mugger world of secrets and corruption.

Kathryn Hunter, past master of the protean, plays the whole army of flunkies (keeper of the third door; recording clerk in the Ministry of the Pen; wiper-up of lapdog urine etc) in this witty and haunting 70 minute production which reunites her with the team – adaptor Colin Teevan and director Walter Meierjohann – behind the international hit, Kafka's Monkey. She is partnered by the excellent performer/musician Temesgen Zeleke who takes on the role of three young opponents of the Emperor, sings an eloquent protest song and beautifully reinforces the shifts of mood with his krar (Ethiopian lute) and pedal-drum.

There's gentle humour and a neat sense of the ridiculous as Hunter, in a grey wig and uniform, quick-changes through this parade of sycophants, using nothing more elaborate than adjustments of accent, posture and props. As the Emperor's pillow bearer, she launches herself across the floor on her stomach to demonstrate how vital it was to place a pillow at the base of the throne to prevent the diminutive monarch's feet from dangling in mid-air. This stagnant world of elaborate, clockwork-like deference, where the Emperor would rather his subordinates were corrupt than disloyal, is endangered when the young men he's rashly allowed to be educated abroad come home with new ideas. There's an attempted coup in 1960 and, to the sound of gunfire, the tone of the production changes. We watch the subsequent imperial bid for “development without reform” played out as a cheesy international disco before a silk curtain, and footage of Jonathan Dimbleby's 1973 documentary The Unknown Famine (which the regime denies is real) – the pictures of people dying of hunger contrasted with the airplanes bringing champagne and caviar from Europe.

Hunter is particularly powerful as the former Minister of Information whose son is killed in a crackdown on student protest and whose face can't quite suppress a tremor of grief as he inveighs against the boy and continues his career of lying on behalf of “His Divine Majesty”. Down to the closing captions, the mixed mood of the ending is masterly – at once an indictment of, and an elegy for, a being who is all the more potent a presence here because tiptoed round, never directly seen. Recommended.

To 24 Sept; 020 7922 2922 Then transfers to HOME in Manchester, 28 Sept – 8 Oct; 0161 200 1500

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