Kathryn Hunter is one of those rare, eccentric talents whose shows tend to sound a bit ‘hmmm’ on paper, probably because she is genuinely the only performer alive who could possibly pull them off.
‘The Emperor’ is an adaptation of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s 1978 work ‘Cesarz’, a series of interviews conducted with the sprawling household staff of the recently deposed emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.
Accompanied by Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, Hunter plays every role. Dressed in a man’s suit and wearing a grey, short-cropped man’s wig, the diminutive, middle-aged actor embodies everyone from the sensitive zookeeper (who looked after Selassie’s lions) to an absurd, preening ‘ceremonial official’ (who maybe has something to do with Selassie’s clocks). The tone is tenderly comic but always earnest: most of the subjects are doddery old eccentrics with manifestly extraneous jobs (dog urine wiper; pillow bearer). They come across as sweet and sincere old men – though their gender is never made clear – with the humour coming more from the absurdity of their jobs and a production - from Walter Meierjohann - that feels like it’s lightly parodying talking head television documentaries.
It’s also incredibly moving, a study of a household in which everyone loved the frail, corrupt old man at the heart of it. Though the show leaves us in little doubt that Selassie stole millions from a nation he left to starve, it seeks neither to excuse nor condemn, but merely open a window into the strange kind of love that well-treated servants might feel for a master. An account from Selassie’s valet de chambre of the emperor’s indignation at the maltreatment of his dog Lulu by one of the generals who deposed him is oddly heartbreaking.
It’s all enhanced by the intimacy of Meierjohann’s production, which comes from both the fact it’s mostly just one woman on a darkened stage, but also because of the points where she breaks off to involve Zeleke. Sometimes he’s the voice and drums of the Ethiopian people, sometimes he’s just an old friend. His inclusion always feels generous and his music gently haunting, and certainly there is never any feeling that the seemingly sexless, raceless Hunter is in any way seeking to mock or parody Ethiopians. ‘The Emperor’ is a study in love; a strange, perhaps misplaced love, but love all the same.