What is an emperor without his clothes? At the start of Simon Leys' philosophical novella The Death of Napoleon, France's military ruler pops off his trademark tricolore coat and bicorne hat and hands them onto a lackey, Eugene Lenormand. While his loyal subject languishes in a British jail in his place, he hotfoots it to France in disguise. The problem comes when his body double pegs it. Napoleon's completely cut off from himself.
It is, in Told by an Idiot's hands, the ultimate 'crisis d'identité' – a confusion of Confucian proportions. When no-one believes you're the person you claim to be, can you really be sure you're that person at all?
The reason Paul Hunter's Napoleon has it so hard is that, on his travels, he repeatedly bumps into himself. A plaque in his hotel room claims, falsely, that the emperor had stayed there before. A blind beggar leading battlefield tours concocts fake encounters with Le Petit General and, when he finally reaches Paris, Napoleon finds himself face-to-face with a mannequin of…himself. In a world of Napoleon impersonators, what's one more? He ends up hoisted by his own petard – a great man lost to his own legacy. (Even his cabbie's blaring out Abba's "Waterloo".)
Leys' question, then, is why bother building a legacy at all. Living Lenormand's life, Napoleon loses his power – there's a lovely moment when he orders a bawling baby to shush – but gains a loving wife known as 'Ostrich'. Such is his concern to reclaim his status, however, he misses his shot at quiet contentment.
At heart, it's a cautionary tale about ego – one that applies to emperors and us lot alike. By playing Leys' fable as a two-hander – Ayesha Antoine undertakes a flurry of costume and character changes – Told by an Idiot present a world where everyone else blurs into one. At his maddest, Hunter's faced with a roomful of reflections, as audience members don paper bicornes and mirror his moves. (Call it a Bona-party…)
In a world of avatars and performed identities, Napoleon Disrobed strikes a chord. In stressing the malleability and unknowability of history – the show starts with a spot quiz á la University Challenge – it chimes with the influx of alternative facts and disinformation. The world, very quickly, starts to destabilise.
Told by an Idiot have long sought stories like this; where concrete reality seems to slip out of joint. Indeed, Napoleon Disrobed sometimes resembles a sister piece to its take on Lear, My Perfect Mind – another great man brought down with a bump – only here it's not the brain that's unmoored, but the whole world itself. A seesawing stage – probably the silliest stage I've ever seen – suggests such instability.
But where Told by an Idiot's best spin themselves into anarchy, bamboozling the brain with a dizzying delirium, Kathryn Hunter's production is too plodding by half. Sticking tightly to Leys' story, with few formal twists, scene follows scene and, while each affords Hunter's Brummie Bonaparte a classic comic turn, the show never quite gives logic the slip. It's très stupide – anyone for melon tennis? – but too often Napoleon Disrobed strikes one-note.
Napoleon Disrobed runs at the Arcola until 10 March, then at Birmingham Rep from 15 to 17 March and the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 20 to 24 March.