Naked Ambition: Napoleon Disrobed at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 17th February 2018, matinée

We’ve been keeping an eye out for some time for the next production from ‘Told By An Idiot’, having enjoyed previous productions so much, and judging by their website, we haven’t done a very good job.  This is an incredibly prolific and creative company, and refreshingly not particularly London-centric.  However, we did manage to find out about ‘Napoleon Disrobed’ at the Arcola Theatre and, on the basis of the title alone, booked immediately.

There’s nothing quite like an alternative history story, and this production is unlike any alternative history we’ve ever seen.  Perhaps the all-pervasive sense that nothing is quite real adds to a feeling that anything could have happened, couldn’t it?  In this case, Napoleon switched places with a sailor and escaped his exile on St Helena, only to have his imposter die shortly afterwards, making it impossible to reclaim his power and implement his plan.

It is hard to pinpoint ‘Told By An Idiot’s’ style as such – it more an intangible sense of drama that they create, usually by focusing attention on the details that most dramatists ignore in favour of more lofty affairs.  And there is always an underlying sense of absurd humour – ‘You look exactly like me!’ proclaims the stout middle-aged red-head Paul Hunter to his partner in crime Ayesha Antoine, a slim young black woman.  And so the adventure begins, with the whole stage transformed into a ship, literally rolling and pitching as Napoleon makes his journey to freedom.

Trying to find a group of supporters who have sworn to stay loyal and return him to power, he finds himself unrecognised, and making the best of it, creates a bizarre life with ‘Ostrich’ a young woman whose melon business is failing.  He revives the business and they settle into a domestic routine.  But the pull of his now ‘alternative’ reality as Napoleon remains, as he sneaks out and puts on his costume, and exhorts the audience to indulge in a series of small rebellions which he hopes will kickstart the revolution.  Inevitably, he is led away to an asylum where he discovers that there many, many people who think they are Napoleon.

But it is not really the plot that is important (it is based on ‘The Death of Napoleon’ by Simon Leys, which sounds like an intriguing read) – it is the sense of life taking over, both the joys which distract us (symbolised here by an insane game of ping-pong with inflatable melons – you had to be there), and the routine which wears us down and blunts ambition. We get the sense that this humdrum existence is no less appropriate for the world’s most power-hungry man than a more conventional tale of heroics and political ambition. Disrobed both literally and metaphorically, what gives him the right to claim anything greater?

Told By An Idiot excel at finding a tangent on everything they do, and here they give us a tantalising sense of what might have been. Our only complaint would be that at just an hour and a quarter, they really do leave us wanting more in this case.

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