Based on Simon Leys’ novella The Death of Napoleon, Told By An Idiot’s new show Napoleon Disrobed is a comical and absurd adaptation that imagines the life of Napoleon leading up to his death. With mistaken identity, contemporary gags and delightfully clumsy physicality, the performance brings to life a Leys’ story in an energetic, fun and funny way.
The banished Napoleon (Paul Hunter) is escaping St. Helena disguised as a cabin hand named Eugène Lenormand, leaving the man behind in his place. He is on his way back to Europe with the help of a secret organisation who he believes will help him regain his power as Emperor. In a series of funny events and misunderstanding, he ends up in Paris, where he meets a widower who takes him in. The unlikely pair become close, but when Eugene dies in St. Helena, Napoleon struggles to keep his real identity a secret and is devastated by everyone’s reaction.
The story has been very well adapted for the stage, with witty language that’s amplified by the physical comedy, and an absurd chain of events. The comedy is interpreted and performed well by Hunter, who is hilarious both as Napoleon and as the various other characters he takes on – a ridiculous caricature of Jeremy Paxman with a wig that resembles anyone but him was a particular highlight. Opposite him, Ayesha Antoine’s characterisation is on point, and she moves from one character to another seamlessly, which is glorious to watch. Her energy fills up the whole room. The two have a great chemistry together on stage, and I would happily watch them again.
Kathryn Hunter’s direction allows the performers to be playful with the audience, encouraging viewers to interact with them and the show, which is fun to be a part of. Michael Vale’s set design is imaginative and allows the actors to be very active. A big, raised wooden platform in the centre of the space serves as a versatile stage, changing from a television studio to a ship to a Eurostar carriage. The way the performers use this set piece heightens their physicality and the humour of the show. It’s just extremely entertaining, especially during the scene on the ship – it made me want to give it a go myself.
Overall the humour in Napoleon Disrobed is clever, witty and completely absurd. With great writing and exceptional performances from both Antoine and Hunter, the show is a hilarious staging of Leys’ novella.
Napoleon Disrobed is at the Arcola Theatre until 10th March.