CURTAIN UP: Review of The Emperor

By Charles Wright

In October 1973, ITV, the English television network, dispatched Jonathan Dimbleby and a film crew from the news program This Week to Ethiopia to assess the severity of draught-related famine in that country. ITV’s coverage and the book Dimbleby subsequently published, both titled The Unknown Famine, exposed a colossal humanitarian crisis that Emperor Haile Selassie I and his government had long ignored.

The film and Dimbleby’s book led to scrutiny of the super-wealthy Emperor by human rights agencies, advocates, and other governments. This was the beginning of the end for the Emperor, who was deposed by coup d’etat in 1974. He died under house arrest the following year, probably murdered by members of the interim government. (Despite the Emperor’s official designation as Haile Selassie I, there would be no Emperor Haile Selassie II.)

After the coup, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski interviewed surviving members of the Emperor’s court, including his personal servants, about Selassie’s life, conduct of government, and the last days of his reign. Those interviews, published as The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat in 1978, constitute oblique, analogical criticism of the Communist regime in Kapuscinski’s homeland.

Colin Teevan’s stage adaptation of Kapuscinski’s book — energetically performed by Kathryn Hunter and Temesgen Zeleke under Walter Meierjohann’s direction — is now on view at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). Starkly though handsomely designed by Ti Green (scenery and costumes), Louis Price (video), and Mike Gunning (lighting), The Emperor is an international co-production among TFANA, London’s Young Vic, HOME (the arts center in Manchester, UK), and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg.