Friday, 9 September 2016

Review The Emperor

The Emperor 
Adapted by Colin Teevan
From The Book By Ryszard Kapuściński

Pictures At An Exhibition

At the start of The Emperor, s delicate verse adaptation by Colin Teevan of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński's 1975 literary reportage, we hear a rippling melody picked out on the strings of the Krar, the Ethiopian lyre.

The writing is literally on the wall when projected letters unravel, picked out to the beat of typewriter keys. "Kapuściński's intention was 'to recover pictures doomed to destruction, to make an exhibition of the old art of govverning'.

This two hander with Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke (who plays the lyre and percussion, as well as army and student rebels), and presumably Kapuściński's book The Emperor, has an almost fable like quality in its ironies and humour. 

The archaic rhythms of the hierachical  Ethiopian court and attempt to rule with Aristolian purity are contrasted with the post Second World War world of international politics, implied social insurance, corruption in the form of a modern financial paper trail and a new educated generation influenced by Communism.

Hunter plays twelve characters interviewed by Kapuściński, maintaining a ricketty structure, underpinned by Japanese investment and foreign capital in the form of development aid,  holding up the Lion of Judah. The last of the imperial dynasty Haile Selassi was supposedly descended from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and ruled  Ethiopia until his "dethronement" in the latter half of the twentieth centry.

Yet every one of the court associates and flunkies in their outsize military uniforms and epaulets can be seen as one aspect of the elusive, unseen character of the frail, tiny ruler Haile Selassie. Simultaneously every one may be some aspect of the writer Kapuściński, another unseen character.

At the same time the testimonies of the court functionaries also reveal with fine brushstrokes how western politics and finance was reflected back and entangled in Ethiopia's uneasy mix. That is to say the "development without reform", the God-like, out of touch status of the Emperor, the army as royal bodyguards but then rebels, the poverty and famine  afflicting the Horn of Africa country.

Echoing the final days of the court of Louis XVI, the last Tsar of Russia and the Chinese Emperors, the piece in its measured poetic form has the feel of a deceptively gentle Candide or, perhaps more aptly, Rasselas satire. Most of all, Kapuściński himself was a journalist reporting back to and having to negotiate the potentially fatal (for him) internal and external intricacies of the Polish Soviet satellite state

Walter Meierjohann directs in a black box stage designed by Ti Green with the simplest of props: A couple of chairs,a walking stick, a wooden throne. red and gold cushions, a silk handkerchief. Hunter buttons and unbuttons an army jacket with removeable epaulets and dons a chauffeur's large peaked cap, scholarly glasses, a pair of shades as she metamorphoses from one character to another. 

The soundscape by Paul Arditta includes a jaunty brass band, the racket of building as the international development money flows in, the murmuring of discontents and the drumming of the rain.  

Running until September 24 at the Young Vic before transferring to Manchester's Home and then on to Luxembourg, the play does not stint on the ambiguities of the power play of the Western powers. It also simply and effectively emphasizes the mixed motives of the journalism which proved one of the major catalysts for the overthrow of the Imperial leader as the hacks cry at a press conference, "We don't want development, we want famine!". 

There is just a hint that this play wishes to spread its tendrils further than the years of The Emperor's reign and fall. For as the Minister of Information says to his dissident university student son, "For you, Hailu, there exists only the twentieth century,/Or this twenty first century/In which you say blessed justice will reign!"

This was a nation caught between an ancient feudal set up and both a willingness to play a role on  while being dragged onto the world stage. If a direct quote from Kapuściński (we haven't read his book), the immuring of Haile Selassie from the poverty of his subjects takes on a deepened meaning in our financial times:

"But in a poor country?/Money is a thing of wonder/ Money is a thick hedge, always in bloom/It separates you from everything else,/Through that hedge you can't see poverty,/Nor smell the human misery,/Nor hear the cries of the hopeless masses.

The art of governing, mentioned from the first, and the fate of empires, according to Aristotle, depends on the education of youth. Yet the elite of Ethiopia found their own children in the university refusing to be distracted by the city girls in hotel bars dressed in mini skirts "like Jane Fonda" or the music of the Rolling Stones. In the end, the elders have to be protected from stones launched by their own children.

This is a play exquisitely done. And yet, as the introduction to the printed text by Richard Reid of the School of African and Oriental Studies points out, the Kapuściński source material is not "unproblematical" (we assume in its double edged agenda coming from a Polish journalist at a certain point in history). 

While Teevan mentions the 21st century, the exploration of journalism and  Kapuściński's role seems just a little too lightly drawn for this version of The Emperor to make it distinct enough from that of Jonathan Miller and Michael Hastings at The Royal Court before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Still, it's an engrossing 100 minutes with a book and play which attempts to crystallize the nature of ancient hierarchies in a modern world and it's an amber/green light from TLT and her own little valet de théâtre.

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