Arcola Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018
Who writes history? History is never permanent though the victors always like to think their version will be the one that survives into the millennia.
Told by an Idiot’s stage adaptation of Simon Leys’ acclaimed counter to the-great-man-of-history novella The Death of Napoleon though asks the useful question that gels nicely with the common stock of our age of conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’. What if…?
So what if Napoleon didn’t die on St Helena but instead his place was taken by a certain Eugène Lenormand. Meanwhile Leys’ conceit has it that our Corsican military genius and strategist legs it away from the island and his British captors and disguised as a cabin boy prepares to make his way back to Paris and eventually glory regained.
On the way, though, his ship goes amiss and he is left wandering through Europe. In Told by an Idiot’s hands – director Kathryn Hunter with co-founder and performer, Paul Hunter, aided and abetted by an ever resourceful Ayesha Antoine – Napoleon Disrobed, in essence, becomes the journey of the common man.
As such, it is a journey, as the company have always expressed and as signposted in their title, of a heightened sense of the absurd and ridiculous in life. Indeed, as with My Perfect Mind, their show built around actor Edward Petherbridge’s stroke, laughing, with great tenderness, at the tragedy of it.
Paul Hunter’s moon face is indeed a face for all seasons. He can delight, he can dig you in the ribs, he can play the clown until the cows come home but in a twinkling, he can add a layer of pathos.
For most of Napoleon Disrobed, however, he is, mostly in clown mode, physically riding the waves – at one moment the stage becomes a ship rolling on the high seas and a whole episode engages with the notion of him serving breakfast – a fried egg – to the crew whilst navigating the surf. When he is restored to dry land, naturally, he cannot walk but in a zigzag, unsteady line.
I wouldn’t say that mirth is unconfined this time but the chuckles come frequently enough.
Sometimes the daftness overwhelms the story’s metaphorical thrust. After all, it is fable for our times of the search for glory, legacy all curdled and beaten into the search for identity, love and what gives a life some meaning.
It starts, disconcertingly, though as if we’ve suddenly walked into a televised episode of University Challenge with the audience hauled in by Hunter a la Paxman, with questions about Napoleon and his life `fired’ at the hapless team spokepersons.
All good fun and Kathryn Hunter fills the stage with myriad quick-fire changes and props and indicators of recognisably modern life-style references, seized on with relish particularly by the young in the audience.
There’s Paul Hunter, for example, tramping through Europe, stopping at a hotel and being given one of those hotel keys which isn’t really a key, just a card with a chip which, as we all know, you present to a door which then fails to open. You try again, and again – as does Paul Hunter. It’s simple stuff, but deft.
On another occasion, in Paris, Eugène meets up with a `contact’, Ostrich who owns a melon shop. Business is bad and in a master-stroke, Eugène decides that cutting the shop’s opening hours to almost zero will lead to queues around the block.
And so it does. In the meantime, Eugène and Ostrich play a game of `pan-pan’, playing tennis with frying pan and rubber melon. At one point, there’s a dispute – it’s being umpired by Ostrich’s babe-in-arms. `You cannot be serious’, yells Eugène. And suddenly we’re in McEnroe territory.
Eugène finally finds some peace and ordinary life with Ostrich. But he fails to convince her of his true identity. And he dies, unable to find out even her real name.
Lightly serious, the likes of David Starkey would no doubt be outraged. History is history after all!
But I have to report that at the end, the younger members of the audience gave Hunter and Antoine a standing ovation. Clearly adoring its anarchy and silliness they caught every nuance and stylistic innuendo.
Long live non-conformity, long live ridicule, long live alternative history!