Napoleon disrobed, a “comic alternative history” of what happened to Napoleon after he fell from power is a playful and inventive piece of theatre, typical of the work of Told by an Idiot, directed by Kathryn Hunter who knows a few things about theatre. It takes risks and asks its audience to go with it. It is the kind of telling that only works on stage which is always a good sign. As we see Napoleon attempting to come to terms with his loss of power and wondering who he really is, we are asked interesting questions about status, power and control in a lighthearted, absurdist way. There is a lot to enjoy, above all two technically accomplished and focused performances from Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter. They have to think fast and keep their timing perfect, both vocally and physically. Paul Hunter engages with the audience and has some moving moments where we see him as he once was while Ayesha Antoine plays a number of parts with style and charm. I was delighted to see her back here again. Kathryn Hunter has asked a lot of them- the direction is fast and often quite technically demanding. The audience are part of the action throughout and playing a character and managing the physical demands of the show while keeping it moving forward must feel a bit like juggling.
The stage itself, designed by Michael Vale, is a wooden platform which can be rocked or raked and have things hidden under it via trapdoors- a wonderful tool which the production makes full use of- and the backdrop is made of three coloured lengths of cloth forming a tricolour. It’s a clever and versatile setting.
This is a very good production- it has worked well elsewhere and it will work well again- so why did I feel that the performance I saw didn’t quite take off at the SJT? Firstly, to allow for the staging, part of the round had to be screened off so we were on three sides rather than in the round. The round at the Stephen Joseph is never a comfortable space when that has to be done. There is a sweet spot, a connection with the audience, which is lost and what is a very special space seems to sulk. Napoleon Disrobed relies on that connection and on this particular afternoon too many of the matinee audience I was part of were uncomfortable with it rather than delighted. From my seat I was looking across at the tiered audience on the other side so I didn’t have to guess about that. They were wondering what was going on rather than allowing themselves to follow a flight of theatrical fancy. It was their loss. Maybe they hadn’t read the words “comic” and “alternative” in the tag-line. The one moment which they really made work was when those who had been given paper Napoleon hats were asked to stand up,look at Napoleon and copy what he did. As they pointed and put on their hats they were serious and uncertain and the effect was genuinely eerie. If only the audience had worked as hard as the cast things might have been very different.