Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir. Image courtesy of Theo PR

Lost Theatre, 19 May – 5 June 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Poor Toussaint L’Ouverture – known in his native 18th century San Domingo (modern Haiti) as the Napoleon Noir – is apparently doomed to historical oversight. Despite being a hero to his nation, a liberator of slaves, he’s reduced to a bit player even in the play that bears his nom de guerre.

Though in writing Napoleon Noir Marcus Heath presumably intended to raise L’Ouverture’s public profile, his portrayal of the man is decidedly ungenerous. Cavin Cornwall has the necessary presence and poise to lend Toussaint a dependable solemnity, but he still comes across as a poor strategist, blinded by stubbornness.

There’s the seed of a great tragic plot there just waiting for nourishment. Instead, the play suggests Toussaint’s assertion that he “cannot trust any white man!” is the root of his downfall, and that he would have been better off had he heeded the advice of his second-in-command, the rather ineffectual (white) French general La Terre (Maurizio Molino).

Perhaps if Toussaint were allowed more stage time, Heath would have the space to do him justice, but swathes of the play are given over to the underdeveloped intrigues and romances of the underdeveloped characters that comprise Toussaint’s household. These predominantly female supporting characters aren’t well served by the script or by Hannah Kaye’s direction, which resorts too often to comically overplayed cleavage-plumping and saucy asides.

Toussaint’s half-French mistress Mireille (Katrina Nare) is probably the largest part in the production, and should probably be its emotional core – abandoned by her general to the mercies of the French military aristocracy, she should stand in for all the wronged people of San Domingo. But Toussaint pays her too little attention in their few scenes together for their bond to be emotionally engaging; Heath gives her a lot of whiny speeches and soppy, forgettable power ballads to sing; and Nare, alone of all the cast, retains a drama school RP delivery that sets her jarringly apart from what should be an ensemble.

The whole production, in fact, is a jumble of jarringly distinct styles and elements. Each scene is airtight, so tension and momentum built up in the opening minutes, as the white and black Napoleons’ incompatible desires steer everyone inevitably towards violence, dissipate uselessly and are forgotten once the focus shifts to the household.

Heath’s poppy musical compositions sit uncomfortably alongside Duncan Walsh-Atkins’ more African-accented, drumming-and-chanting-led pieces. Excruciating naturalism blurs suddenly into expressionist movement pieces. Every four or five lines someone drops into GCSE-standard French small talk. And once, in the second act, Mireille reacts to news of yet another unlikely affair by addressing a pantomime “Ooh la la!” direct to the audience.

Where, meanwhile, is the neglected hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Napoleon Noir? Either trying his level best to look dignified amongst it all, or very sensibly backstage, staying beyond the reach of the circus.

Written by Marcus Heath

Crew includes Hannah Kaye (director), Duncan Walsh-Atkins (musical director) and Iain Storey (choreographer)

Cast includes Cavin Cornwall (Toussaint), Maurizio Molino (La Terre), Hayward Morse (Le Clerc), Katrine Nare (Mireille), Katherine Newman (Pauline) and Zama Precious Siphengana (Yamaya)

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