Napoleon Disrobed, Arcola Theatre

Told by an Idiot’s Napoleon Disrobed is a larger-than-life comic imagining of the final days of the Emperor Napoleon, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys. In it, Napoleon (Paul Hunter) swaps places with loyal solider Eugene (Ayesha Antoine), hops on a ship and sails to freedom, via Belgium, ending up back in Paris but running a melon stall with his new love (also Ayesha Antoine). Forced to hide his real identity, Napoleon never-the-less maintains his drive to succeed, and hatches a plan to make theirs the best melon stall in Paris.

Except this isn’t really about a melon stall, or a love affair. This is about the absurdity of driven individuals like Napoleon and how even they suffer from ordinary human foibles. It’s about once great man forced to hide himself and be normal, against all his drives and instincts.

Towards the end of the play, the endlessly plotting Napoleon, believing he can still gather together an army of loyalists and take back control, is confronted with multiple versions of himself, and he is shocked. Then he pulls himself together and comes up with even madder schemes, such as entreating the audience to help him by getting on the 243 bus and starting a riot before we get to Bruce Grove. (No one did.)

Mainly, though, this is an evening of absurd fun. Enjoyable, clever and performed with tongue-in-cheek gusto by Hunter and Antoine, who spend most of the time on a wildly tilting set built to sway like one of Napoleon’s great ships. The design and construction of this set is a triumph, both of imagination and engineering. And as Napoleon himself said “Imagination rules the world”. It sure does here.

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