Arcola Theatre, 7th March 2018
Here is JL David’s preposterously heroic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. The Napoleon of Simon Ley’s alternative history The Death of Napoleon, is of a somewhat different hue. Ley’s novella, his real name was Pierre Ryckmans and he was a Belgian academic specialist based in Australia, imagines NB is smuggled out of St Helena, returns to Paris via Antwerp, and attempts to hook up with the faithful in order to mount a comeback. It all ends rather more prosaically.
This novella forms the basis for this play-ful diversion from Told By An Idiot. co-produced by Theatre Royal Plymouth. Told By An Idiot exists to put the fun into theatre so it is easy to see why this story, about an extraordinary man rendered ordinary and having to deal with the consequences, attracted them. When I say them I mean two gifted Hunters: Paul Hunter co-founder and driving force behind TBAI, and here our Napoleon, and director Kathryn Hunter, theatre’s acting chameleon, last seen in the Emperor at the Young Vic.
The final, and, for me, most valuable contribution however, came from Ayesha Antoine, who plays … everybody else, including Ostrich, the young woman who proves NB’s salvation. The play kicks off with some gentle, and very funny, Napoleon related banter with the audience from Paul Hunter. We cut to the escape from St Helena, NB masquerading as Eugene Lenormand, brought to life with a few well chosen props, the first of a dizzying number of costume changes from Ms Antoine, and the unpinioning of Michael Vale’s raised platform set to create the swelling sea. Sight gags, aural interruptions, wordplay and anachronisms a plenty, take us energetically through NB’s missed meeting with the Bonapartistes in Bordeaux, his train journey from Antwerp and his rendezvous with widow, single mum and melon shop owner Ostrich. The tone then shifts from the affectionately comic to the comically tender as NB abandons his ambitions and his destiny, his double on St Helena having pegged it early, to settle down with Ostrich, whoever she might be.
This is a piece that revels in the artifice and wonder of theatre which delivers more than you might expect or deserve. It might not quite deliver the contemplations on identity and freedom that the director might have imagined, is NB really who he says he is?, but you would have to be a serious miserabilist not to be won over by this. Plainly I am not as miserable as I think I am.