Haile Selassie wasn’t just an emperor, he was an idol: embedded into Rastafarian mythology, feted by international diplomats, and hallowed at a distance where his flaws were blurred by his gilded magnificence.
But even people much, much closer to the Ethiopian emperor (ruling from 1930 to 1974, as last in an ancient dynasty) were blind to his flaws. Kathryn Hunter’s performance shows us the men who dressed him, humoured him, and tended to his every whim, but still saw him as the sun in the sky. In a series of vignettes drawn from real interviews with his former servants and ministers, she depicts a man who believes he’s in dialogue with posterity, as a divinely appointed ruler as immovable as the sun.
And, as the clouds part and the outside world sees the mass starvation in Ethiopia, and as students return from university in other countries to the unimaginable poverty of home, they see him as a dictator who’s responsible for millions of preventable deaths: for allowing devastating famine, while he hoards hundreds millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, or literally under the carpet of his advisory chamber.
The ingeniousness of Colin Teevan’s script is that it doesn’t let you see this towering difference in perspective right away. It starts small, putting each of Selassie’s followers under Hunter’s precise microscope. Teevan’s source matter is a book by Polish journalist Rsyzard Kapuscinski, who interviewed Selassie’s aged former servants and ministers in the years after their idol was toppled. They’re a series of deflated men: one describes how closeness to the Emperor would puff courtiers up, making them square and serious. Hunter embues these shrunken exiles, reduced from comfort to being embarassing relics of a time best forgotten, with dignity, but character too – like a row of shrivelled gourds. There’s a sinuous, flamboyant man whose job it is to bow, twice on the hour. A clerk. A man who guards the third door (the most important one). And a man whose job it is to wipe the pee of the Emperor’s dog, Lulu, off the shoes of stoic visitors.
In a world where most older female actors have to hide their age, Hunter embraces the tools her physicality gives her. She calcifies her bent neck and shoulders like a strange old tortoise, or stiffens her legs as though they’re two walking sticks, joining the one she clutches in her hand. Each character is completely distinct, even when she can’t lay her hands on the small costume signifiers that mark them out: a knitted cap, or some beaded epaulettes.
Kapuscinski’s book has been criticised for the way it caricatures the Ethiopians it depicts, distorting them slightly into cartoonish shapes designed to appeal to European senses of humour. In anyone else’s hands, the politics of a white woman playing these black people could be deeply uncomfortable. But Hunter’s sensitive performance carefully negotiates its territory. At first, Temesgen Zeleke silently accompanies Hunter’s performance with the delicate strains of a traditional Ethiopian lyre, as though he’s just one in a long line of black musicians called upon to provide colour and atmosphere – but not opinions. But as the royal court her words construct starts to fall apart, he is enfranchised to speak, like the subjects who lived outside its walls.
When a courtier praises the hotel suites and fancy parties of Selassie’s life as an international diplomat (Ti Green’s design evokes the world of swish 1960s luxury with a vast white chiffon curtain) Zeleke pulls the plug on his music. And as the students’ revolt takes power, Zeleke grabs the microphone to deliver a student’s speech in Amharic: a translation reveals the lines “This is the beginning of the end for you all”.
‘The Emperor’ is a document of a world smashed to pieces. There’s a lingering sensuousness to its descriptions, to Hunter’s embodiments of the living fragments that Ethopia’s 1974 revolution left behind. But where Kapusckinski’s book aimed “to recover pictures doomed to destruction, to make an exhibition of the old art of governing”, this production isn’t an exercise in recreation. Like observers across the world, Kapusckinski romanticised Selassie. Hunter doesn’t. She collides his accounts with images of famine and documents from the violent emergence of a new political regime: and by doing so, she shows how the brutal legacy of an older world order has been smashed apart, but not lost.