"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Sir John Acton
The Emperor is a story filled with disenchantment, offering a glimpse at the descent of power through the eyes of the powerless. The fall of the Ethiopian empire is exposed through ten characters, all played by Kathryn Hunter.
Capturing the rituals and extravagance of everyday life for Haile Selassie are the civil servants surrounding him. Kathryn switches between ten male roles including the emperor’s dog cleaner, time-keeper, pillow bearer and Minister of Information. Paired with Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, who performs live on stage besides Kathryn. Kathryn displays her versatility by transforming through costumes, voices and mannerisms effortlessly.
The simple, black set and swift costume changes allow the audience to follow Haile Selassie’s dethronement in a removed, entertaining but ultimately moving performance. Running alongside the loyal cast of characters is Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary, The Unknown Famine. The TV documentary brought light to Ethopia’s famine in 1973, with its exposure and embarrassment used to fuel the overthrow of Selassie.
The deterioration of everyday life plays out slowly for the people of Ethiopia. Distraction techniques are used to motivate people against their own self-interests and many of the authoritarian practices are still prevalent in western culture. Kathryn even brings audience members up onto the stage to party and enjoy the Ethiopian empires new riches.
All of Kathryn’s characters eventually serve to highlight the desperate state of the declining Selassie regime with the inevitable corruption of power. Their servitude allows them to watch their country drained of its resources and its people starve whilst its emperor stashes $100 bills under his Persian carpet.