Writer: Told By An Idiot, based on the book by Simon Leys
Director: Kathryn Hunter
Reviewer: John Kennedy
Told by an Idiot theatre company invites its audience to enter into a conspiratorial ‘Just what if?’ hypothetical premise where historical givens are given a severely anachronistic anarchical shaking up. What if Bonaparte was not alone in his part of an elaborate escape hoax? Escape from St Helena? Now there’s a movie pitch. Welcome then to Napoleon – The 2018 Incognito European Tour (all Russian gigs now cancelled!) Disrobed.
Best take this thing one step at a time here. So, there’s these three blokes called Beckett, Ionesco and Stoppard in a Montmartre bar. Downing down a pint of absinthe each they sketch-out on a one-act play where Death, a circus clown and a unicorn are caught in a perpetual narrative loop condemned to stapling jelly to a balloon in a hurricane. A similar scenario might well have motivated this adaptation of Simon Ley’s novella parable on the vanities of self-deluded hero iconography. And then there’s the suggestive clue in the Company’s name notwithstanding.
Hangdog, Tony Hancock of face and world-weary demeanour, Artistic Director, Paul Hunter, plays the eponymous megalomaniac who persuades fellow jail-mate, Eugène (spot the Ionesco homage there?) to impersonate him whilst he concocts his escape. A little licence is needed here as Eugène, the uncannily adaptable and amorphous, Ayesha Antoine, is young, female and black. No matter, this is a physical theatre, an absurdist, surrealist concoction of disparate and desperate mime and mayhem invention. Before Hunter sets the evening afloat with an audience participation skit on University Challenge, paper Napoleon hats have been distributed. He riffs through some cannily researched Birmingham locales to butter-up a rapport. The hats will later haunt him in a manic dumb-show.
The stage comprises an articulated wooden platform that rolls and sways, tilts and undulates as Napoleon sails to Antwerp. Belgium? Cue Abba’s Waterloo as he takes the replacement bus to catch the Eurostar. A graphic comic-strip of absurdist vignettes eventually has him befriend Parisian Ostrich, who keeps a pristine ceremonial uniform of Napoleon in honour of her dead soldier husband. Do keep up! Calamity befalls Napoleon reading news of his death on St Helena. Now he is condemned to remain Eugène – ‘an orphan to his dreams.’ He confesses to Ostrich he really is Napoleon – she smiles rather lasciviously and says she’d love to be his role-play kinky Josephine. He’s damned if he is and damned if he doesn’t. Consumed in the vortex of identity crisis and perceived Napoleon-Complex insanity he’s eventually constrained – hoisted by his own petard. Explaining how he and Ostrich run a successful melon business by never opening the shop, how they play ping-pong with frying-pans and melons, take a seaside vacation doesn’t really help – or particularly matter.
This is a gloriously inventive and incredibly crafted eighty minutes of non-linear lunacy and hilarious Dada delirious distraction. Confusion is their masterpiece. An Escher inspired derailing rollercoaster pageant roaring along on a Möbius strip where events fold in on themselves and both audience and cast wave frenetically as they pass themselves by on the ride. Vulnerable and vainglorious, chameleon complex and spontaneous, Paul Hunter’s Napoleon could conquer the world. Breaking down the fourth wall with breaking-wind hubris he becomes an Everyman agent-provocateur, the wise Fool foil proffering two-fingered gestures to claustrophobic convention. Though perhaps not with Josephine, tonight.
Runs until 17 March and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan