Image: Pixabay

What would have happened if Napoleon had escaped from exile in St Helena and attempted to get back to France to reclaim his former glory as emperor, asks Told by an Idiot in ‘Napoleon Disrobed’, an absurd, funny, anachronistic retelling of history.

In their version of the facts, Napoleon swaps identities with a sailor and sails back to France – or so he thinks, because his ship is diverted and he ends up in Holland. He enters a modern world he is just a little estranged from, part 19th-century Europe, part modern. He takes the bus and uses his phone, alternating from the colonial emperor he thinks he is to the befuzzled old man he is represented as. The anachronisms keep the show interesting, and successfully keep the audience on their toes during a fairly straightforward narrative.

Mixing historical elements and costumes with modern ones, physical comedy with touching moments, the show opens making audience members participate in a round of University Challenge, led by the same two actors who will transform into Napoleon and every person he meets on his quest to France. The audience participation could have been terrifying, but ultimately, it ties the show together nicely, as everything that is said is useful later in the show, leading to many a déjà-vu.

a touching tale of a tragic and unrecognisable old man, pathetically reminiscing over his glory days

The most impressive part of the show may be the staging, where the stage moves and becomes a ship on a rocky sea, a ping-pong table, sometimes stabilising into a (very) raked stage. The show is inventive, creating a busy, lively atmosphere with few actors and relatively few props.

Still, the technical aspects of the show don’t overpower the humour or the humanity of a show representing a man mostly known for his military prowess and colonial expansionism. Indeed, Napoleon’s ambitions are crushed sooner than expected: realising his own mortality, his goals are transformed from a vague dream of re-conquering Europe to basic survival, keeping those he learns to love near, and simultaneously dissimulating, and itching to reveal, his identity.

From a comic, slightly otherworldly play, the two actors transform it into a touching tale of a tragic and unrecognisable old man, pathetically reminiscing over his glory days, whilst somehow, in a mad frenzy, somehow turning into a motivational speaker, encouraging the audience to “do something crazy”.

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