Napoleon Disrobed

Told by an Idiot, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys
Told by an Idiot, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Arcola Theatre
Arcola Theatre (Studio 1)

Paul Hunter as Napoleon Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter as Napoleon Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter as Napoleon Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Ayesha Antoine Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Devised by the company under the direction of Kathryn Hunter, this is a show that sees Napoleon escaping from St Helena by swapping places with a lookalike sailor.

I’m guessing this is a fairly free adaptation of Leys’s La mort de Napoléon (which I have not read). That original fable may say something serious about positions of power and hollow self-importance. This zany concoction sets out to entertain and it delivers delightfully, thanks to uninhibited performances from Paul Hunter as Napoleon and Ayesha Antoine as Eugène Lenormand (and all the other roles) and the contribution of Michael Vale’s sea-sawing set.

It kicks off, for no obvious reason (except that its funny), with Hunter as the warm-up man introducing a recording of University Challenge. Audience members accosted about their education find themselves becoming quiz contestants until, as more and more questions make reference to Bonaparte, the imprisoned Emperor emerges encouraging lookalike Eugène to swap clothes and assume his identity while Napoleon goes back to France to fulfil his idea of his destiny.

This isn’t rewritten history but a fable about an Emperor not in no clothes but in someone else’s, about ordinary struggles and affections instead of delusions of grandeur and, just in case you should take it too seriously, this lookalike is an actor of the wrong sex, wrong size, wrong age and wrong colour!

Aboard ship as Eugène, Napoleon is an overworked cabin boy, seasick and storm-tossed. Reaching Europe, he finds he has landed in Antwerp, in Belgium not France, with a beggar claiming to be a lamed and blinded Waterloo veteran offering to show him the battlefield. He’s in a mix of 1820 and now as he joins queues for Eurostar, takes a rail replacement bus before making contact with a French pro-Bonaparte underground through melon-merchant Ostriche in a house where his Imperial outfit is still on a stand in the attic. But it is too late, the papers are full of reports of his death on St Helena—though that’s not yet the end of the story.

Dour-faced Hunter is a born funny man and well matched by Ayesha Antoine as sailor, beggar, doctor and warm-hearted Ostriche (as well as voicing her baby) It is an equally accomplished comic performance, and both actors endow their characters with a touching humanity.

There’s a moment of real heartfelt frustration as a watermelon splatters against a wall; for just a second there’s no laughing. It’s a reminder that it is the human condition and the way that we handle it that’s funny. Life’s a joke but it can also be full of love and real feeling.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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