This would be the stuff of the Horrible Histories book series, if only it were not so exorbitantly fanciful. There are moments in Napoleon Disrobed in which I had little, if any, idea as to what exactly was going on – this deliberately chaotic and riotous production is filled with what the Trump Administration’s Kellyanne Conway would call ‘alternative facts’. Her further clarification as to the meaning of that phrase, ‘additional facts and alternative information’, certainly fits the bill here.
There even appears to be a point at which all hope of a coherent narrative is abandoned, as the audience enjoys or endures ‘pan-pong’, in which melons are used as balls and pans as bats in a game of table tennis, and then, a little later, a brief pillow fight.
Good use is made of the available performance space – not for nothing were members of the audience in the front row advised not to sit cross-legged or with their legs stretched out. Some gentle interaction with the audience from a BBC Television production assistant (Paul Hunter) begins proceedings. If you’ve ever been to a studio recording of a television show, you’ll know the score: before the recording proper begins, they bring on a lively personality to crack a few jokes and engage in banter, to loosen the audience up and make them feel comfortable. As everyone is put, in theory at least, in a good mood, the cheering and applause is supposed to flow more freely.
The same sort of psychology works here. Much of the audience suitably engaged, the show sets off on its quirky and bizarre journey. Napoleon (also Hunter) and a ‘cabin boy’ called Eugène Lenormand (Ayesha Antoine), as I understand it, swap identities. Eugène, still as ‘Napoleon’, dies, for reasons that need not be explained here, apparently prematurely, leaving the ‘real’ emperor without an identity, as newspapers across Europe and further afield report the passing of Napoleon. He is forced to carry on as Eugène, becoming the partner of a widow, known only as ‘Ostrich’ (also Antoine).
In the banality of a frankly idiotic business plan to rescue the Ostrich’s melon shop (there’s no mention of diversifying into selling other types of fruit, for instance – it’s all melons, melons, melons), the play has much to say about self-drive and aspirations, and the fine line between that and delusions of grandeur. An almost Brechtian distancing effect is created by periodically dragging the play into the present day – there’s talk of travelling by Eurostar, and a scenario that many a weary traveller will identify with, the hotel key card that doesn’t work, resulting in a trek back to the front desk. Local references to Stoke Newington and Bruce Grove (don’t ask) amongst other places within easy reach of the Arcola Theatre may or may not have added extra congeniality with audience members who live locally.
The sense of humour isn’t for everyone. At this opening night performance, some in the audience were visibly distinctly unimpressed, but for the most part, many seemed to be enjoying themselves, which is, at the end of the day, the main thing when it comes to attending live theatre. But the lively pace isn’t quite sustained to the final scene, and while a one-act play almost by definition isn’t a protracted performance, the ending is a bit of an anti-climax. Still, there’s much to like about Napoleon Disrobed – in this amusing and anarchic production, both performers have excellent stage presence, and the set design, simple but effective, is nothing short of ingenious.
Review by Chris Omaweng
What if Napoleon didn’t die in exile?
What if he swapped identities with a lowly sailor and made it back to Paris?
One of the UK’s most unique theatre companies creates this poignantly moving and wryly humorous re-imagining of the final years of Napoleon Bonaparte. Using their trademark comic physicality Told by an Idiot explore the absurdity of trying to retrieve time and glory. An irreverent and hugely playful show about what it is to lose immense power but gain personal freedom; to transition from one identity to another, and to lose public face.
Told by an Idiot, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Arcola Theatre
A comic alternative history by Told by an Idiot
Directed by Kathryn Hunter
14 February–10 March 2018