Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: 'Napoleon Disrobed' at the Arcola Theatre, 19th February 2018

Napoleon Disrobed reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Everyone knows Napoleon died on the island Saint Helena. What this play presupposes is... maybe he didn't? Told by an Idiot adapts Simon Ley's novella The Death of Napoleon into Napoleon Disrobed, which shows us the would-be Emperor of Europe switching places with a lookalike and scarpering back to Paris with dreams of kickstarting another military campaign.

Napoleon is a notoriously tricky figure to fictionalise. Partly because his life was so vast in scope that it all but demands to be considered as a whole (if a project can defeat Stanley Kubrick it's not to be sniffed at) and partly because there is such a strong collective image of what Napoleon was like: unusually short and perpetually angry.

Napoleon Disrobed neatly sidesteps all of this: it's an imaginary story so doesn't need to lock horns with reality and it directly concerns itself with the false images and misconceptions modern audiences have about its subject. 

It's also not afraid to be weird. Really weird. We open with an impromptu round of University Challenge, through which we're quizzed about the particulars of Napoleon's life. This quickly cuts to St Helena, where Napoleon swaps identities with a lookalike called Eugene and sets out on his voyage. What follows is a dreamy, surreal plot involving a woman called Ostrich and her failing melon business.

This eventually leads to stuff like Napoleon engaged in a game of tennis with pots and pans as racquets and melons as balls, combined with quickfire scenes in which he attempts to soothe an unhappy baby or is presumed insane when he reveals his real identity. It feels as if the plot has been free-associated or improvised - akin to one of those shows where the narrative is assembled from audience suggestions.

Consequentially, it's difficult to figure out what Napoleon Disrobed is actually about. There's maybe a kernel about the nature of identity and living up to expectations, but every time it looks as if the focus will finally tighten and we'll get some context, another madcap sequence kicks off and it's forgotten once more.

Still, at least it's funny as hell. Paul Hunter's Napoleon is outright hilarious, stalking the stage with a classically comedic air of self-importance, Basil Fawlty-ishly air reacting to the indignities he suffers. Hunter doesn't so much break the fourth wall as demolish it, which goes a long way to keeping the show vibrant and pacey. Ayesha Antoine, playing every other character via a selection of wigs and hats also excels, introducing herself by piping up from a front row seat and proceeding to hurl herself into the various parts with gusto.

The show also boasts has designer Michael Vale's fantastic 'rocking' stage, which further cranks up the kinetic element of the play. This is a slippery story and watching the actors work to find their footing is reminiscent of Buster Keaton style slapstick comedy.

Napoleon Disrobed has a lot to shout about, from great stage design to top-flight performances. Despite that, there's something tangibly missing, it's wacky that it's impossible to care about what's happening and it doesn't have much insight into its historical subject. If the show achieved the pathos it appears to be aiming for in the final scenes it'd be something special. 

As it is it's 'merely' very, very funny.

Napoleon Disrobed is at the Arcola Theatre until 10 March 2018. Tickets here.

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