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Napoleon Disrobed review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘energetic and anarchic’

Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter in Napoleon Disrobed at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter in Napoleon Disrobed at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Based on a novel by Simon Leys, Napoleon Disrobed imagines a scenario in which the diminutive tyrant escapes from exile in St Helena, conveniently switching places with a lookalike in order to attempt to reclaim his rightful position back in Europe. Needless to say, nothing in this alternative history goes according to plan.

Told by an Idiot’s wilfully anachronistic romp juxtaposes Eurostar, hotel key cards and Abba (no prizes for guessing which song) with petticoats and bicorn hats. It is very silly indeed, mostly for the right reasons.

Kathryn Hunter’s zippy production is tirelessly energetic and benefits from a clever design by Michael Vale set against the backdrop of a Tricolor flag with a rocking stage keeping things constantly all at sea.

Paul Hunter is irreverently dishevelled in the title role, desperately clinging onto his prowess as a military leader, particularly when turning his unparalleled strategic skills to melon salesmanship. The wonderfully versatile Ayesha Antoine plays her array of roles with flair, the most substantial being Ostrich, a poor widow but not yet a savage (thanks to her cellar full of rosé).

The use of Hackney references enhances the panto-like feel (hopefully Plymouth audiences were made fun of in the same way); however the University Challenge sequence employed to break the ice with the audience, whilst amusing, feels incongruous as a framing device. Nor does the intellectual angle about identity, alternative facts and rewritten histories ever really come to the fore – though too much philosophising might slow things down and that would be a pity.

 

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Verdict
Anarchic alternative history lesson that refuses to take itself too seriously
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