The lone child who laughs at the emperor in his new (revealing) clothes strips away the emperor’s invincibility and encourages the surrounding crowd to do the same. After removing the veil of eminence and authority often afforded to those with power, the crowd sees that all that remains is a naked man, pretentious and absurd.
The absurdity in Told By An Idiot’s Napoleon Disrobed is found through a similar logic. Based on Simon Leys’s The Death of Napoleon, Kathryn Hunter’s production tells a raucous and ebullient fable of Napoleon escaping St Helena by trading places with an officer named Eugene Lenormand. Although returning to France with muskets blazing and a residual, well, Napoleon complex, the emperor is forced to remain in hiding after his impersonator dies. He falls in love with a widow and ends up living out his days unidentified as a melon merchant.
We are like the child in the crowd, and we find it all very funny. Hunter milks the comedy out of the tale with wildly inventive scenes that combine the banal with the legendary and show off the profound absurdity of identity. I mean, if Napoleon playing a round of melon ping-pong, or struggling to hang laundry on what’s essentially a giant seesaw isn’t funny, what is?
Paul Hunter and Ayesha Antoine have an excellent chemistry and excel at the physical sequences. Antoine is particularly great, creating a cast of distinguishable yet dependably funny characters that Napoleon, played by Hunter, encounters. Hunter makes good use of the emperor’s renowned pomposity and self-importance, and leads us along with a charming irreverence. And Michael Vale’s brilliant set, a balanced wooden plateau that transforms from a ship in a tempest to a peaceful Parisian home, is a brilliant complement to these two performers, allowing them to shine in a large but endlessly mutable playground.
What’s less compatible is the unfinished framing device – a round of University Challenge with Jeremy Paxman – that starts the show. Presumably it’s a tool for warming up the audience with predictable middle-class British stereotypes, and it shows off Hunter’s gift for comic timing. But it feels disjointed from the rest of the piece, and is frustratingly never revisited to explain its existence in the first place. It also makes a story about Napoleon feel very British. A notably small union jack used by Hunter’s Napoleon to warm his derriere strikes a markedly irreverent tone, but also underlines who this play is for.
And although Napoleon Disrobed gives a glimpse into what happens when destiny narratives jar against reality and mortality, it doesn’t fully reveal the human side to this Napoleon. It also fails to fully tackle our current relationship with godlike celebrities and historical figures who are similarly endowed with that untouchable status that detracts from their humanity and their contradiction (perhaps what the University Challenge skit is trying to do). While eccentric, sharp, and certainly entertaining, Napoleon Disrobed takes off the emperor’s clothes and sees how he fares, but doesn’t delve deep enough into the moment when the emperor himself realises he’s naked.
Napoleon Disrobed is at the Arcola Theatre until March 10th. For more details, click here.