POLITICS, absolute power, leadership and corruption are some of the themes that form the backdrop to the world premiere of Colin Teevan’s play The Emperor about the regime of Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie.
Based on the book by legendary journalist Ryszard Kapuściński it provides a fascinating insight in to what it might have been like to live under Selassie’s rule.
But rather than focus on the man himself, this extraordinary tale of corruption, avarice and the collapse of absolute power is told from the point of view of his servants – how they felt, what they thought and how they witnessed the brink of their autocratic ruler’s downfall.
The production has just opened at the Young Vic and alongside live music performed by Temesgen Zeleke, the cast of characters, numbering about 12 in all, are all brought to life by Kathryn Hunter.
The actress is making a welcome return to the Waterloo-based theatre, having last been seen there in the critically acclaimed production, Valley of Astonishment.
In a break from rehearsals she tells me she’s delighted to be back and being part of an “important” story and at a theatre she clearly loves
“The Young Vic is great,” she enthuses in her distinctive throaty voice. “It’s my favourite theatre in London – I think the ethos that [artistic director] David Lan has created is brilliant.
“He’s astute and passionate and it’s trickled out to everyone who works there – they are all really engaged, producing amazing work with passion and commitment.
“Also, the audiences they attract make it very special.”
But back to the matter in hand, and this colourful and diverse range of characters that Kathryn has to inhabit to tell the story.
I ask what it’s like to be faced with such a proposition and she admits that it’s all consuming – although for audiences lucky enough to go and see it, it will be a chance for her to show off her versatility and extraordinary talent as an actress.
“There is a gallery of servants in the palace that we have created and I play all of them so yes, it’s quite a challenge,” she says warmly.
“In the novel there are about 30 but we have cut them down to about 12 and have chosen to find the life of them and their emotions.
“That’s still quite a few and of course they are all very different so changing characters quite quickly in terms of voices and gestures can be tricky but it’s been a joy to do.
“Normally of course when you prepare for a show you focus on one person but I have to be careful to tend to all of them otherwise they lose strength. It’s like having children, you have to make sure you put in quality time with all of them!
“Also I’m not completely on my own as I’m working with the wonderful Temesgen Zeleke who will be playing live and beautifully, so the texture of the piece and the pulse of Ethiopia is evident throughout.
“There is a lot of humour and fun but during the course of the piece we see the regime begin to collapse and it’s quite dramatic. And as well as the wonderful music it’s a very visual experience.”
As she tells me about it all Kathryn appears to be quite laid back about the prospect of playing so many characters but then she is used to challenging herself in the roles she takes on.
During her extensive career following her training at RADA, she has had stints at the The Globe, RSC, Shared Experience and ground-breaking theatre company Complicite which was co-founded by her husband, theatre maker Marcello Magni, among many others.
She has also worked with legendary director Peter Brook, won an Olivier Award in 1991 and has switched sides to direct a series of successful productions including Othello.
Not only that she has also made a name for herself playing some of the male roles including Richard III, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a male chimp in Kafka’s Monkey, being the first British woman King Lear in 1997 and most recently, Cyrano De Bergerac at the Southwark Playhouse.
Kathryn says she doesn’t actively go out of her way to choose challenging roles, but she admits, chuckling, that they often find her.
And to her credit she doesn’t shy away from them either. Indeed she positively embraces them.
“I find these roles tend to find me and I do like to see what I can do with them,” she says.
“I suppose I do like to challenge myself but the strange thing is I don’t have a master plan, it just happens.
“In terms of the male roles I have been more attracted to them because they have more to do and women are often sidelined in plays.”
The Emperor appealed Kathryn says because the story is told by the servants but rather than be an accurate and totally true account of what happened, it mixes both journalism and fiction to create what she describes as a “parable about power”.
“Ryszard Kapuściński said that for him if you write a play as a journalistic history lesson it will wash over people’s heads, but if it’s a fable people will remember the themes and that is the best kind of story telling,” she says. “So it will be educational but in a fun, engaging and dramatic way.
“What we are hoping to achieve is to show that there are many parallels to what is going in our world today and bring out the relevant themes.
“It’s not Julius Casear though – we are seeing it through the centurions’ eyes and that makes it a much more interesting take. What do they think, are they totally devoted and loyal and how much are they living in fear and repression?”
She says audiences will relate to not just the politics but also perhaps situations in their own lives with business, their employers or work colleagues.
“It’s all masters and servants, those who rule and those who serve,” she says. “That perspective is very interesting.
“The audience will get to question the questions of loyalty and power and what is good governance.
“Haile Selassie was an oppressor and tyrant but the regime that came afterwards makes him look the most sainted leader. It was horrendously bloody and even now in Ethiopia there have been riots on some issues of inequality, the necessity of land reform and unfair taxation and things that concern us all.
“Then we have what’s going on in America with the rise in popularity of Donald Trump and what a win for him could mean for the rest of the world. There are those who critique Obama but he looks like a class act in comparison.
“So around the world there is an issue of what is good leadership. Here, the Labour Party is in crisis at the moment. The question there is, is it possible to maintain principles in a modern world.
“For me it makes this play so fascinating because of the parallels that can be found in our lives today,” she adds.
“The notion of absolute power, what it means and how it’s perceived. I think audiences will connect with ordinary people, the servants of the Emperor as they suffer the consequences of his actions and decisions. It’s going to be fascinating to see their reactions.”
The Emperor is on at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo until September 24. Tickets from £10. Visit www.youngvic.org or call the box office on 020 7922 2922.
Following its premiere at the Young Vic, The Emperor will run at HOME in Manchester between Wednesday September 28 September and Saturday October 8 and at Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg between Wednesday October 12 and Friday October 14.