Lloyd Evans

In a league of her own

Plus: thank God the directors of this new Royal Court play decided to lock the audience in otherwise there would have been a mass breakout

In a league of her own
Text settings

The Emperor

Young Vic, until 24 September


Royal Court, until 15 October

The Emperor seems like a worthy lesson in Ethiopian history. Haile Selassie’s final days are recounted by a retinue of devoted flunkies. He had valets, chauffeurs, zoo-keepers and door-openers to perform every conceivable chore. Each morning a butler proffered a silver dish loaded with meat from which the emperor fed his exotic pets. A clock-watcher, ‘the Cuckoo’, performed a coded bow during meetings to inform His Majesty that new suppliants awaited him. A royal bursar helped him hand envelopes of cash to petitioners who discovered, always too late, that the donation was barely a fraction of the sum expected. A cushion-handler ensured that his titchy legs were never seen to dangle in mid-air when he took his seat on one of his many thrones. The script is permeated with delicious ironies. A servant enumerates the emperor’s many benefactions. ‘He introduced electricity to the country. First to his 16 palaces. Then to other places.’

Kathryn Hunter, playing all the courtiers, offers a gloriously silly, gloriously detailed essay in political eccentricity. In the second half the show darkens into a brutal anatomisation of tyranny in its death throes. Millions died in famines that the emperor considered as natural as the winds and the tides. He was dethroned by a usurper who, it’s rumoured, smothered him in his prison bed. Any talented mimic could turn this taut, provocative and revealing comedy into something exceptional. Kathryn Hunter’s talent belongs in a different league. She’s as petite as Piaf but with a sexless, off-kilter body that is crowned, absurdly, by a long and statuesque head whose expressive versatility is astonishing. Her voice, a deep rasping bass, can reach a vast range of characters, from the mincing flirt to the swaggering bully. And every figure she satirises manages to keep a trace of its human dignity just beyond the reach of her mockery. As an actor she is consummately uncertain. She uses every heartbeat of her performance to look for surprises, shocks, innovations. And the audience acknowledges her mastery with the finest gifts it can offer, acclaim and gratitude. Remember Max Wall? Here is that elixir once again, that street-smart, crowd-bewitching magic. Filming this would be pointless. Close up, in real time, within scorching distance of the heat source, is the only way.

Nathaniel Martello-White is an intriguing creator of angst-ridden plays who likes to mess with conventions. Torn, set in London, introduces us to a chaotic, multi-nipper family who gather at a therapy clinic for a bust-up. Heartache and blame are in the air as the characters curse and jibber at each other. ‘That shit happened to me,’ is the play’s fourth line. The 25th is ‘fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck!’ Strange forms of address are used. ‘First Twin’, ‘Second Twin’, ‘Couzin’. Often the characters speak (or shriek) over each other, which makes their lines unintelligible. When the dialogue breaks down, the cast deliver a primal scream that would comfortably drown out a Red Arrows flypast.

Martello-White has a knack for writing tortured urban hysterics and the obvious home for his talent is TV. But the small screen would reject this show because it fails to carry us into a new or unexamined aspect of our culture. It’s all platitudes. Location: the ghetto. Theme: racial tension. Plot: abused child confronts neglectful adults. And the script is over-overcrowded. Beyond the core family there are numerous blithering cousins and posturing aunties. A West Indian drunk slobs around claiming to be the father of several, or possibly all, of the other characters. And there’s a semi-mythical Irishwoman, ‘Nanny, the matriarch’, who is — wait for it — played by more than one actress. No prior warning of this pretentious obfuscation is given to the audience. I spotted it in paragraph four of the author’s textual notes but only after the show was over. A very amateurish approach to play-making. And Martello-White likes to let his gobby urban puppets indulge in high-table theorising. ‘Most of the wealth inherited in this country was due to slavery,’ says one. ‘Mothers when they get old are invigorated by their grandchildren’s energy.’ ‘How you are perceived when you walk into a room is the highest currency you have.’

The Court may have had doubts about funding this script adequately. The performance was held in a dusty attic where the actors, seemingly in their own clothes, sat in plastic chairs beneath the listless glare of the house lights. The only prop was a tea urn. Audience members seated around the room created a constant visual distraction. I spent the entire time trying not to stare at a buxom redhead whose straining white T-shirt bore the interjection ‘ooh-la-la!’. And something weird happened just before curtain-up. A character flourishing a set of keys locked us all into the auditorium. Probably a breach of the fire regulations but at least it prevented a mass breakout.