Napoleon Disrobed at Arcola Theatre
Simon Leys’s novella, The Death of Napoleon, is the latest text to be adapted by Told By an Idiot and is directed by Kathryn Hunter at the Arcola Theatre. An offbeat and hilarious look into one of history’s most famous military figures, the show is a unique retelling providing fresh humorous insight.
The stage, designed by Michael Vale, is comprised of wooden planks, essentially a large swaying floor, which is used cleverly to signify a rocking ship on the sea as well as the cradle of a baby later on. Like other plays at this venue, there is minimal prop usage, making the story of the French General the heart of this production.
Napoleon (Paul Hunter) sets the play on its surreal course. It is the University Challenge finals and he is dressed in a wig, representing Jeremy Paxman. One might think they have stumbled into the wrong theatre, if not for the French flag and specators being given out paper Bicorne hats. The actor makes it feel like an authentic quiz night with arbitrary general knowledge questions. When defining the origins of the respective universities competing, Central School and Oxford, he describes the former as being “founded by a man in a shopping centre”, producing hearty laughs – a familiar sound as the play goes on. Once the challenge comes to an end, Hunter wrestles with Eugène Lemormand (Ayesha Antoine), who becomes Napoleon’s double. As he curses at the British, and burns a small Union Jack flag, the audience is thoroughly amused. Antoine is commendable in her many roles, including Lemormand, a mother, doctor and a beggar, amongst others; each part is strongly characterised by her differing accents and lively body language.
The production successfully incorporates the absurd and hypothetical: What would have happened if Napoleon had escaped from exile in St Helena? Combining the historical with fantastical fiction, modern-day normalities we all face – such as rail replacement bus services and Oyster card readers – as well as the nifty use of Abba’s Waterloo and Cher’s Believe, the adaptation is funny and surreal. Credit goes to the contributions of physical and comic consultant Marcello Magni.
The particularly bizarre scene in which Napoleon assists Ostrich, the woman in whose house he resides, in a business plan for selling watermelons is a hilariously random high point, particularly as they start playing tennis with inflatable melons, complete with the baby as umpire in its highchair. As Napoleon becomes ever more insistent that he is not Lemormand, attempting to recapture his glory days as a military leader, Ostrich struggles to accept his revelations. In her role as a doctor, Antoine instructs the audience to do exactly as Eugène does, and those with hats imitate Hunter’s every move. A surreal scene.
Absurd spontaneity is at the crux of Napoleon Disrobed and, due to the many possible lines, subtexts, jokes and one-liners at hand, it makes for a very bizarre and highly entertaining fabulist sketch show.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Napoleon Disrobed is at Arcola Theatre from 14th February until 10th March 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.