DramaReviewSouth West

Napoleon Disrobed – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Told By An Idiot based on a novel by Simon Leys

Director: Kathryn Hunter

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Napoleon Disrobed imagines the possibility that Napoleon escapes from St Helena and attempts to return to his supporters in France in order to reclaim the Emperor’s throne.

Based on the book The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys this foray into the alternative history genre has few of the hallmarks of the serious approach of say, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, and more in common with the comic approach of Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

In this version of history, Napoleon eludes his captives by switching with a doppelganger and escapes on a ship as a cabin boy. Intending to meet with his supporters in France, the ship instead, unfortunately, gets diverted to Antwerp. Before he can reach his destination the ‘captive’ Napoleon dies, the momentum to reinstate the Emperor dwindles, leaving the ‘real’ Bonaparte the difficulty of convincing people of who he really is, and needing to start afresh. 

The story set up is perfect for Told By An Idiot’s comic blend of physical humour and the absurd. Paul Hunter plays Napoleon and Ayesha Antoine takes the part of all the other supporting characters, including the doppelganger left behind on St Helena, despite not looking anything like him. Both put in delightful, engaging and incredibly physical performances.

Despite the promise of all the elements aligning to make this production a sure hit the evening misses the mark. The absurdity of the contrast in existence of the old imperial Napoleon and the newly established Napoleon as a watermelon trader is well made. However, the evening somewhat fails to produce the moments of comedy the situation promised. As in the game of watermelon ping pong, so many scenes felt more perplexing than humorous and often, sadly, rather drawn out and repetitive.

Michael Vale’s ingenious set seems at first a huge simple wooden platform but easily adapts to the large rocking deck of a ship, Napoleon’s new home, or the prison island of St Helena. The backdrop throughout consists of three giant vertically hung red, white and blue curtains mirroring the French flag. The scale of these amplifies the enormity of this great man’s reputation and constantly reminds us of his huge historic legacy. The contrast to the tiny Union Flag stuck in a plant pot at the foreground of the set underlines the insignificance of any opposition.

Direction by Kathryn Hunter is on the mark. Despite the excellent set, outstanding performances and direction it is, disappointingly, not enough to compensate for the lightweight and meandering content.

Runs until: 10 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Missed opportunity

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