Acclaimed actor Kathryn Hunter has a longstanding history with Theatre for a New Audience, and now returns to her stomping grounds for their latest production: The Emperor. Running through September 30, the play—based on the book by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński—serves as a sort of biography of Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie via accounts of 35 of his servants.
Playwright Colin Teevan has adapted the work to feature 11 servants, all played by Hunter. The production reunites the team from TFNA’s Kafka’s Monkey, one of Hunter’s earlier appearances with the company. Here, she recalls some of her most defining TFNA moments—including her unforgettable aerial entrance as Puck in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
FRAGMENTS (TFANA 2011)
From texts by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Brook
“Fragments was an evening of short pieces that director Peter Brook selected because he felt they epitomized Samuel Beckett’s work. It was my first time at TFANA, but I knew artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz had produced much of Peter’s work in New York and that they had a long relationship. And I had first worked with Peter on a Caryl Churchill play, Far Away, in French, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in 2002.”
“These photos are from the last piece of the evening, called Come and Go, where three ladies meet and rediscover their relationship of old. And in typical Peter form, he had the two actors, Jos [Houben] and Marcello [Magni, Hunter’s real life partner] play the other two ladies. It’s a perfect example of Peter’s open-minded spirit and deep belief that theater is most profoundly an act of the imagination. So if an actor can imaginatively be an old lady, then he’s an old lady.”
KAFKA’S MONKEY (TFANA 2013)
Based on "A Report to an Academy" by Franz Kafka, adapted by Colin Teevan, and starring Kathryn Hunter, directed by Walter Meierjohann
“This was my first collaboration with Walter Meierjohann, who is also directing The Emperor. He had actually seen me in Fragments and decided he wanted to work together. Walter’s from Germany and The Report to the Academy by Frank Kafka [the short story from which Kafka’s Monkey is adapted, about an ape named Red Peter who has learned to behave like a human] is a very well-known piece there but less so elsewhere. And so he approached me very diffidently and asked: “Would you mind playing a chimpanzee?” And I said: “I’ve always wanted to play a chimpanzee!" I would work the whole morning in rehearsal with a movement director just being a free chimpanzee, as it were, and in the afternoon with Walter we would do the chimpanzee being dressed as a human being. So it was many, many hours of being a chimpanzee, watching videos, going to zoos, and I basically fell in love with them. People asked me was it weird to play an animal. In fact, I felt very, very connected. I never stopped working on the physical element: the in-turned feet, the low center of gravity, the powerful arms and legs and very articulate fingers.”
“We did the play all over the world—in Australia, in Japan, in Turkey, in Europe—and everywhere it had a very particular resonance to do with histories of political repression. But when we came to New York, everyone related to the monkey in the cage as if they themselves were the chimpanzee, in a cage of their own making.”
“The whole venture of inaugurating TFANA’s new home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, with Julie Taymor’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most glorious plays, was extremely exciting. There was a production being born, a theatre being born, there was David Harewood as Oberon, there were fairies! There was a whole world. I remember the period as bursting at the seams.”
“I always feel that Julie [Taymor] and I created Puck together. The richness of her visual imagination is beyond words. She’s an extraordinary human being and I hope she wouldn’t mind my saying almost Puck-like herself in terms of invention. She would talk to me about the character, of course, but more than that she would sort of act it out physically, so I would pick up on that rhythm, and gradually a spirit got created that was mischievous and fast and full of hilarity countered with some sadness as well.”
“This feels like an image that was created by collaboration, inspired by Julie’s sense that Puck descends to earth and then in her inimitable way asking, 'How do we create that?' So there was the costume designer Constance Hoffman, who created the trousers that extend and extend and extend. And there I was on the lighting rig, wearing a harness, having regular flying sessions with these wonderful aerialists, and eventually pushed off the rig, upside down. I’m fine with heights but there was a moment in the production when I got nervous and then I’d just have to imagine diving into the sea.”
THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT (TFANA 2014)
Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
“It was wonderful to be invited yet again to TFANA. [Director] Peter [Brook] had done an exploration of neurological so-called disorders based on Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and this was a kind of follow-up to that [in The Valley of Astonishment Hunter plays one of three character with synesthesia, defined as the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body]. And it asks the question does the depiction of these neurological states have a place on the stage? And the answer is yes. Because Peter, like Oliver, believes these aren’t disorders, this is an area of astonishment, this human brain. And Oliver got to see it at TFANA. And in fact he had had some doubts and had said to Peter: ‘Is this really material for the theatre? Memory? Synesthesia?’ And he came the first night and there was this wonderful moment that I witnessed of Peter Brook and Oliver Sacks and Jeffrey Horowitz meeting backstage and Oliver saying: ‘It worked.’ It was really beautiful.”
Jared McNeill and Kathryn Hunter in THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT. Photo by Pascal Victor.
“What I love about Peter is that he eschews technology in his productions because he believes the body, the brain, the mind, the heart—is plenty amazing. So his productions seem very simple but his focus is on this astonishing creature, the human being.”
THE EMPEROR (TFANA 2018)
Adapted by Colin Teevan from the Book by Ryszard Kapuściński, directed by Walter Meierjohann
Co-Produced by the Young Vic, HOME, and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg
“We don’t see the emperor, we suggest him. I share the stage with Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke; the nature of his singing is extraordinary, there are no frills. In workshops we really constructed it together and the process was very rhythmic. So I would say it’s kind of a duet. At some point I did suggest to Walter that even though Temesgen is not an actor, could he play my son when I play the character of the minister of information? And he ran with that. So in this image I’m telling my son, who is developing anti-monarchy ideas, to stop thinking. I’m telling him that thinking is a very dangerous disease and he should lighten up and go shopping or nightclubbing.”
“The emperor has many servants, and they have very, very specific jobs and tasks. This gentleman, in particular, his function is ‘pillow bearer.’ So it is well known that the emperor was of short stature, but it was important for him to be seen as above his subjects so all his thrones were very tall, which meant that his legs would dangle in the air. So to save the emperor the embarrassment of looking like a child, the pillow bearer would place a pillow beneath his feet. And in fact if you go on Google you will find images of Haile Selassie with a pillow beneath his feet.”