Adapted by: Told by an Idiot
Director: Kathryn Hunter
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The twentieth-century was full of conspiracy theories; while some dealt with faked moon landings and the Roswell cover-up, most of the believed skulduggery surrounded the deaths of famous celebrities – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John F Kennedy, even Princess Diana were so famous they couldn’t possibly have died in the way we were told, theorists argue. And now, slightly further back in history, we can add Napoleon to those ranks.
Simon Leys short novel The Death of Napoleon has been adapted for the stage by Told by an Idiot Theatre Company, arriving at the Arcola Theatre under the title Napoleon Disrobed. Arguably the greatest French leader of all time – and certainly the only one to have his own complex – Napoleon is facing permanent exile on the island of St Helena having lost the Battle of Waterloo. To buy time to gather his strength and incite a new rebellion, Napoleon swaps places with a lookalike called Eugene and sets out on a bizarre new life.
What follows is an odd and disjointed story that deliberately plays-up the random and absurd scenarios without having anything much to say about Napoleon’s counter-factual life. It starts with a warm-up act prior to an edition of University Challenge, as Paul Hunter randomly selects two members of the audience to front teams, all answering questions about Napoleon – a device that is rapidly cast aside. There are some fun moments here and the newly seated audience is eager to have a good time, little realising this is as good as it gets.
Fairly suddenly the story begins as we’re shown a desperate Napoleon (Hunter) begging for an escape route. The problem is, once he gets it, the show has hardly anywhere to go. Scenario after scenario is played out, with barely any connection between them, and while there is lots of cleverly observed comedy including a failed hotel key card and a wheely suitcase, essentially very little happens for the next 75 minutes.
The translation from page to stage feels loose and ragged, and what could have been a humorous farce building on Napoleon’s frustrated leadership and need to hide his true nature, becomes little more than a one-joke sketch stretched over increasingly implausible scenes. The sole connection throughout is a growing annoyance that his famous exploits are quickly fabricated and misreported by the people he encounters, but all of this becomes lost under a weak love story and a life as a Melon salesman.
It is well-staged though and credit to designer Michael Vale whose rocking stage structure is infinitely adaptable, adding great context to the turbulent ship-based scenes while also doubling as a bus – driven to the sounds of Abba’s Waterloo – and Marie Antoinette’s bed which Napoleon’s new girlfriend buys at auction. Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the show are the three backdrop curtains arranged in a Tricolour with the central white panel torn down irrevocably half-way through the show.
Both performers, Hunter and Ayesha Antoine, play multiple roles with an admirable dedication, throwing themselves into every personality they take on. Hunter is a world-weary figure, who suggests the latent aspects of Napoleon’s character which emerge slowly as stratagems and edicts to the audience, while Antoine plays virtually everyone else with conviction in a series of wigs and hats.
Napoleon Disrobed is a fine idea but focusing on its eccentricity results in a fragmented knock-about comedy without a purpose. A lot of the time nothing much happens, and the laughs begin to thin, particularly in the second half where the exploration of Napoleon’s secret extra life feels overstretched. Did he really die on St Helena as the history books tell us or has he joined the ranks of those other immortal celebrities who we can’t let go? Conspiracy theorists may love the concept but in this production the evidence just doesn’t stack up.
Runs until 10 March 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan