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Director Walter Meierjohann Talks All Things The Emperor

Following the acclaimed production of Kafka’s Monkey in 2015, the same team of actor Kathryn Hunter, writer Colin Teevan, and director Walter Meierjohann have reunited for The Emperor.  We caught up with director (and our very own Artistic Director of Theatre) Walter Meierjohann to find out more about the show…

After Kafka’s Monkey, what was the motivation for wanting to work with Kathryn Hunter again?

Walter Meierjohann: I actually saw her on stage before I directed her in Kafka’s Monkey, and because she has a more ‘European’ background and comes from a ‘physical’ background, I feel it is a match made in heaven! We were always looking for a follow-on piece, and initially, it was Colin who spoke to Kathryn. We also workshopped a few other ideas but it quickly became clear that The Emperor was the next project we all wanted to do.

The story certainly lends itself to a piece of drama. Can you explain the creative process of reducing the book to a 70-minute piece of theatre?

WM: When we started talking about it we decided we needed two or three workshops. We took out what we liked, put it on the wall, and that reduced a 140-page book to about a five-hour show. From there Colin started to adapt it. For example, we pared down interviews with 35 servants to 11, and Kathryn plays them all, of course.

How faithful have you been to the stories in the book? Presumably the story of one man’s rule of a largely impoverished country for over 40 years, and the way he treated his people, is not in need of any over-dramatisation?

WM: We’ve been really quite faithful to the book, but Kapuściński was accused of taking a lot of liberties with his interviewees, and I believe he did. The book is a set of interviews – or are they really? We don’t quite know. That is what Kapuściński claimed, but to have spoken to all those people in the way he claims to have done would have put them in quite a bit of danger. We are not documentary film-makers; we work in fiction, that is what we do. But the main structure of the book, which is in three parts, is intact in the stage version.

The plays is a one-woman show, albeit with accompaniment from musician Temesgen Zeleke. Is there music in the show to break it up a little or was it to give it some authenticity given that Temesgen is Ethiopian?

WM: We felt, as none of us are from Ethiopia, we needed an authentic voice for the piece. Just talking to him and getting advice from him proved invaluable to the production. I adored working with him, he is a very gifted musician.

There has been talk in academic circles since the book was published in 1978 that Kapuściński wrote it as an allegory to what was going in his native Poland at the time – a good 10 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. What is your take on that?

WM: He definitely wrote it with Poland in mind, I am sure. He was obsessed with power. He experienced first-hand what fascism could do to people, and became a communist because of that experience with fascism. Going abroad became an eye-opener for him. Kapuściński said he wanted to create a new kind of journalism, mixing journalism with fiction. If you’re an academic or a journalist you question this approach and think it is a fabrication.

Haile Selassie’s followers were noted for their remarkable devotion to him, even as his rule was drawing to a close. What, do you think, was the reason for that loyalty?

WM: There’s a whole 3000-year Ethiopian history whereby the emperor is revered as a God. The Rastafarian movement still see him as a God and find it difficult to accept there are critical views of Haile Selassie. When he first went to Jamaica there were thousands of people waiting at the airport to greet him. Bob Marley famously said he was a God. But Haile Selassie saw himself as a human being. What we do in The Emperor is show how much his servants loved him. People adored him, but there is another side, because people were terrified of him. His mistake was clinging to power. If he had stood down four years before he died, he would have gone down as the greatest emperor in history.

The Emperor runs between Wed 28 Sep – Sat 8 Oct 2016. To find out more and book tickets here.

A version of this article originally appeared in Big Issue North.

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