[Photo By Simon Annand]
Until Saturday 8th October, 2016
Following the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, and his subsequent death in the August of 1975, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński travelled to Ethiopia in an attempt to seek out the surviving courtiers from Selassie’s court and hear first-hand tales of the lavish world of greed and mind-blowing corruption they had once known.
His account of this journey, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, published in 1978, remains one of the most haunting and dramatic works of reportage the literary world has seen; a perfect source text for Colin Teevan’s impressive two-hand stage adaptation. Though often considered to be a veiled allegory of Poland’s disastrous communist government under the rule of Edward Gierek, Kapuściński’s near Shakespearean work seems as relevant as ever when we consider the absolutism and corruption that exists in the present climate.
Renowned theatrical chameleon Kathryn Hunter magnificently transforms herself into a wide array of colourful and widely contrasting characters to vividly bring to life the rituals and conditions under the controversial rule of Selassie himself.
Accompanied only by live music and vocal effects courtesy of talented Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist Temesgen Zeleke (who serves as a sort of Greek chorus), Teevan’s seventy-minute monologue delivers a series of fascinating vignettes – some very powerful and others utterly absurd and incredibly amusing – metaphorically underlining both the resonant effects of absolute power and Hunter’s much-celebrated skill as a comedian and shape-shifting performer.
From the Emperor’s Pillow Bearer to the Bearer of the Purse, the Recording Clerk in the Ministry of the Pen, the effeminate ‘cuckoo’ (responsible for keeping time and signalling the Emperor’s appearance) and even the man employed solely to mop The Emperor’s dog urine of the boots of visiting guests, Hunter conjures up a very intriguing cast of characters, however undoubtedly her most important creation is that of The Emperor’s Valet de Chambre. As Selassie’s closest courtier, and the sole remaining attendant in an eventually deserted palace, it is the elderly valet who becomes the most significant witness to Selassie’s dethronement. Reliant on a walking stick and with a dry croak in the throat, Hunter beautifully conveys the unwavering loyalty and companionship of an elderly man now drifting into unknown future.
Teevan’s adaptation faithfully honours the three-part structure of Kapuściński’s text, opening with a focus on the constitution of Selassie’s imperial court, moving through to the repercussions of Mengistu Neway’s attempted coup in 1960 and finally on to the ultimate downfall of ‘King of Kings and Elect of God’ Selassie’s Abyssinian Empire.
Whereas the first section is primarily rather light and humorous, things take a significantly darker turn as the play moves into the politically charged middle section. However, it is the final chapter of this impeccably composed triptych that really packs the emotional punch, presenting a short clip of Jonathan Dimbleby’s landmark 1973 television documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine (which powerfully drew worldwide attention to the devastating situation in the country) and highlighting the shocking avarice and dishonesty of an autocrat who allowed a colossal number of his people to starve whilst one hundred millions dollars of his own money lay hidden in a bank account in Sweden.
The recorded memories are simultaneously fascinating and baffling in their depth, emotion and attention to detail. At times eloquent and often quite sarcastic, with large portions of irony thrown in for good measure, the stories told powerfully examine the various hierarchies and rituals that had once existed in a world now greatly changed from the life of antique subservience they had been forced into for so long.
Director Walter Meierjohann’s respectful, minimalist staging ensures the verbatim recollections are continually central to the production. Designer Ti Green, Lighting Designer Mike Gunning and Sound Designer Paul Arditti are again very careful in their atmospheric work, never allowing their designs to overshadow the most important aspects of the production.
Running Time: 1 hour and 5-minutes (approx.) (no interval)
Final Performance at HOME, Manchester: Saturday 8th October, 2016.
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