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The Emperor

There can only be one sun in the sky. Now our world is scorched by a hundred suns.
— The Minister of Information to Emperor Haile Selassie I, speaking to Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski after the coup d'etat of 1974 which dethroned the Emperor

: Kathryn Hunter (. Photo: Gerry Goodstein).
In October 1973, ITV, the English television network, dispatched Jonathan Dimbleby and a film crew from the news program This Week to Ethiopia to assess the severity of draught-related famine in that country. ITV's coverage and the book Dimbleby subsequently published, both titled The Unknown Famine, exposed a colossal humanitarian crisis that Emperor Haile Selassie I and his government had long ignored.

The film and Dimbleby's book led to scrutiny of the super-wealthy Emperor by human rights agencies, advocates, and other governments. This was the beginning of the end for the Emperor, who was deposed by coup d'etat in 1974. He died under house arrest the following year, probably murdered by members of the interim government. (Despite the Emperor's official designation as Haile Selassie I, there would be no Emperor Haile Selassie II.)

After the coup, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski interviewed surviving members of the Emperor's court, including his personal servants, about Selassie's life, conduct of government, and the last days of his reign. Those interviews, published as The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat in 1978, constitute oblique, analogical criticism of the Communist regime in Kapuscinski's homeland.

Colin Teevan's stage adaptation of Kapuscinski's book — energetically performed by Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke under Walter Meierjohann's direction — is now on view at Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). Starkly though handsomely designed by Ti Green (scenery and costumes), Louis Price (video), and Mike Gunning (lighting), The Emperor is an international co-production among TFANA, London's Young Vic, HOME (the arts center in Manchester, UK), and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Selassie ruled Ethiopia for more than five decades — first, as regent (1916-1930) and then (from 1930 to 1974) as emperor, with a period of exile during World War II when Ethiopia was occupied by Italian forces. An internationalist, Selassie brought Ethiopia into the United Nations as a charter member. He instituted reforms in education, established a new federal constitution, and modernized law enforcement. But his government was notoriously corrupt, and much of his administrative energy was sapped by the strain of keeping internal rebellion at bay.

The Emperor is an athletically staged two-hander, with most of the acting handled by the London-based Hunter, whose previous New York appearances include Teevan's Kafka's Monkey, and Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (both at TFANA in 2013). Zeleke, her on-stage partner in The Emperor, is an Ethiopia-born musician now resident in the UK. Zeleke plays the krar, an African lyre, does considerable drumming, and steps forward to act and dance in several scenes. He also provides some sound effects that fit neatly into Paul Arditti's overall sound design.

Hunter plays 11 members of the Emperor's circle. Her speeches come directly from Kapuscinski's book. Most of the characters she portrays are humble in station: Selassie's valet de chambre, his chauffeur, time-keeper, pillow bearer, doorkeeper, a servant assigned to the bedchamber, and a poor soul whose job is to mop up after the imperial lapdog when it urinates in inconvenient places.

A few of the characters hold loftier posts in the court's hierarchy: Treasurer, private zookeeper, recording clerk in the Ministry of the Pen, and Minister of Information. These puffed-up figures are reminiscent of the petty bureaucrats in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado.

Outfitted by designer Ti Green in a militaristic-looking jacket and dark trousers, Hunter is a compelling, yet almost Lilliputian, presence. Shifting from one role to another, she makes few modifications in costuming, relying primarily on alterations in posture, inflection, and affect. Some of her characterizations are more distinctive than others; yet she manages, in each iteration, to maneuver her lithe frame and manipulate her gravelly voice in strikingly different ways. The Emperor's pillow bearer, for instance, is immediately identifiable by a peculiar cockiness, even before Hunter launches into one of his speeches or dives across the stage to demonstrate how this character can deliver a cushion, just in the nick of time, for some part of the royal anatomy.

"His Highness was short," the pillow bearer tells us. "But the dignity of his office demanded he be raised up above his subjects." Whenever the Emperor ascended a throne, this proud and determined servant, "quick as lightening," placed "a pillow beneath [the imperial] feet." Protocol and the Emperor's vanity required that the royal feet not be "left dangling in the air" for "even … a moment."

No scene of The Emperor is more than a vignette. Each offers a glimpse of the speaker's personality but no more. Each character defines himself in terms of his connection to Selassie, the so-called King of Kings. And each speech adds a single piece to the puzzle: what about this tyrannical leader and the extravagant court he created inspired the devotion of those around him?

Hunter's performance bears a resemblance to the way Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones channel numerous figures in their solo plays; but Tevann's script never gives her an opportunity for the sustained characterization that's essential to works such as Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Jones' Bridge and Tunnel. Where Jones and Smith are noteworthy for their complex exploration of the real-life people they impersonate, Hunter's accomplishment (at least in The Emperor) is transforming herself in a trice from one character to another.

The Emperor doesn't offer a wealth of detail about either Selassie or the 11 characters who summon up his memory. But that's not its point. Just as Kapuscinski's original reportage constituted artful agitprop, critical of the Polish government of the 1970s, Teevan's adaptation is a theatrical reflection on present day dictatorial regimes in places such as North Korea, Russia, and Myanmar, as well as autocratic inclinations recently evident in Washington, D.C. The play's insight is the degree to which successful autocrats rely on the fantasies they inspire in toadies — their so-called "base" — to maintain a hold on power.

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The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Adapted by Colin Teevan
Directed by Walter Meierjohann
Cast: Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke
Design: Ti Green
Lighting: Mike Gunning
Sound: Paul Arditti
Video: Louis Price
Movement: Imogen Knight
Music: Dave Price
Production Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Running Time: 1 hours 10 minutes Presented by Theatre for a New Audience as a co-production with Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester; and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn);
From 9/09/18; opened 9/16/18; closing 9/30/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a press performance on 9/14/18

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