On entering the theatre, one is led to worry for a few minutes that one has entered the wrong play: Jeremy Paxman has arrived (wig n all) to conduct the latest episode of university challenge: audience participation resulted in Central College vs. Mansfield College, Oxford. Not to worry, after a seamless and unexpected rising from the audience of our other actor (Ayesha Antoine), Jeremy Paxman transforms into Napoleon (Paul Hunter with Eugene Lelamonde, his ‘doppelgänger’ – in other words a woman as similar looking to him as Donald Duck is to Marie Antoinette; we are assured that we are, after all, in the right place this evening.
This production by Told by an Idiot imagines the last two years of Napoleon’s life as if he had fled his imprisonment on the island of Corsica to escape to Paris under the guise of the aforementioned Eugene. It is as absurd as it sounds and we are shipped on a rocking stage back and forth through bizarre scenes from the Eurostar to the Gare du Nord to a failing melon shop run by a widow who goes by the name of Ostrich.
Told by an Idiot has been around for 25 years, self-admittedly writing plays that explore the human condition and the existentialisms of life and death. The seemingly heavy content matter is a guise (in this play at least) for a light-hearted and extremely humorous performance, welding stand-up comedy and pantomime-esque farce in a creative little bundle of joy. With just the right amount of audience participation that you feel engaged and included, but not on-edge at a potentially imminent call to arms, Napoleon Disrobed is anything but a lugubrious history play. Anachronisms and coherent plot line are an unimportant formality and tossed out the window as we learn to abandon any expectations and allow the bizarre wit to carry us along for a laugh-out-loud hour and a half.
The precise and ‘historical background’ of the play is overwhelmingly irrelevant and we could be watching any two people anywhere in the world at any time. Napoleon Disrobed perfectly manifests the strange quirks inside all of us- ones that we didn’t even know we had. Facetious calls to arms for kebabs to be thrown in the air or to participate in a heart-breaking karaoke in the pub opposite once the play has ended. I for one was fully inspired to enjoy my life and embrace any strangely fabulous impulse of delight.
Napoleon Disrobed is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 10 March 2018
Photo: Manuel Harlan