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Theater review by Helen Shaw
There’s some question as to whether the masterful 1978 book The Emperor is fiction or fact. Ryszard Kapuściński’s portrait of Haile Selassie’s fallen Ethiopian court, based on interviews with Selassie’s surviving courtiers, is one of the world’s great authoritarianism-through-the-looking-glass portraits, full of exquisitely tragicomical figures like the “pillow bearer” (who cushions the short king’s dangling feet) and the “cuckoo” (who bows on the hour). But how much of it is true? Kapuściński once said he didn’t record or take notes while writing it; at the time, the book was meant to be read partly as allegory for then-Communist Poland. Such shadings can evaporate with time. What the book continues to do with a kind of pervasive, pernicious success is make the complicated Selassie into an object of fun: After Kapuściński, Selassie is remembered as a tinpot Emperor Jones, a popinjay, a clown.
Did someone say clown? Enter, on cue, the brilliant British actor Kathryn Hunter. In Colin Teevan’s 75-minute stage adaptation, Hunter plays a double-handful of characters from The Emperor, whizzing through gorgeous comic sketches, disappearing behind a pile of pillows, slapping on a pair of epaulets to play a preening minister of information, turning each episode into something funny and poignant and sweet. She interacts occasionally with the Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, who plucks a lyre and sometimes plays a character who resists the courtiers’ fawning monologues, but make no mistake: This is a Hunter showcase through and through. You go to The Emperor to bow to the queen.
Beyond this barnstarming central performance, though, what does The Emperor give us? Although director Walter Meierjohann shows us a bit of Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1973 documentary The Unknown Famine, the play does not tell us much about Ethiopia's actual past, nor does it speak to the present moment. (Our new courtiers don’t look like this.) Held at bay by layers of non-African interpreters and embroiderers—first Kapuściński, then the European creative team, then Hunter herself—we wind up in a land of detached allegory that puts us very far from Ethiopia and Selassie, perhaps even farther than we were before the show. Despite Hunter's dazzling performance, the Emperor leaves little impression; as you collect your belongings, it already seems to fade into the dark.
Theater for a New Audience (Off Broadway). By Ryszard Kapuściński. Adapted by Colin Teevan. Directed by Walter Meierjohann. With Kathryn Hunter, Temesgen Zeleke. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.