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Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor – review at the Young Vic Theatre, London

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor at the Young Vic. Photo: Simon Annand

It’s been said elsewhere and often but Kathryn Hunter really is a mesmeric presence on stage. Every gesture counts. Every little uptick of the lip.

Based on a book by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor is an account of Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, “King of Kings, elect of God,” as told by his courtiers and servants, his pillow-bearers and door-keepers. It manages to paint an unexpectedly tender picture of the master-servant relationship while never overlooking the fact that this was a regime that allowed hundreds of thousands to perish from famine while money was funnelled into endless ‘development projects.’

While The Emperor is an effective history lesson – covering Ethiopia’s process of modernisation, the various coups, and the filming of the famous Jonathan Dimbleby documentary, The Unknown Famine – it’s also an intensely human piece of theatre. Hunter, in a thinning white wig, plays an array of characters: ministers, valets, cushion-plumpers and moppers-up of dog mess. Her performance is typically versatile and nimble, transcending gender. She’s utterly convincing as a succession of hunched and quavering old men in shabby uniforms. Every one is distinct.

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor at the Young Vic. Photo: Simon Annand
Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor at the Young Vic. Photo: Simon Annand

Her on-stage relationship with the musician Temesgen Zeleke is generous. He is no less present than her. There’s a surprising amount of warmth and humour in Walter Meierjohann’s production too.

Meierjohann and Hunter have worked together in the past, on Kafka’s Monkey, and while his production is a showcase for Hunter’s particular gifts, it’s much more than that, it’s an intricate miniature, a rich and intelligent portrait of power, but also of love.

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Tender, intelligent and human account of a ruler, a messiah and a man