BBC Radio 3, 2 December 2012
Written in the early 1970s, initially as a script for Stanley Kubrick
and later on as a full-length play, Napoleon Rising had hitherto never been performed on any medium - stage, television,
radio. Polly Thomas' production was something of a milestone, not only reminding us of the sheer range of Burgess' learning,
but giving us an insight into Napoleon (Toby Jones) as both public and private figure.
As I listened to Jones' performance in the central role, I kept being reminded of
Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange: although a brilliant tactician and strategies, the French general was also strikingly
immature - not quite a delinquent, perhaps, but someone who could only deal with adversity through aggression, whether verbal
or physical. Perhaps his success as a conqueror had a lot to do with this quality (or shortcoming, perhaps?); if
anything went wrong, he would be spurred on to fight back. His relationship with Josephine (Jenny Jules) was especially
problematic; although the two protested their love for one another, there was a disturbing undercurrent to their exchanges
which perhaps prevented them from consummating their love with any success. This might explain Napoleon's inability
to have children.
More significantly Napoleon's behaviour only served to inflame his rivals, most of
whom despised him, and openly communicated it - but not necessarily to his face. Talleyrand (Alex Jennings at his most
sardonic) came across as a Richelieu-like figure, someone not to be trusted at any cost yet essential to the success of any
political or military operation.
In truth Napoleon Rising came across as something of a period-piece, rooted
in Seventies attitudes - especially in its depiction of attitudes towards non-Christian powers such as the Ottomans.
The times have moved on a little: orientalist observations need to be removed from scripts if at all possible. Nonetheless
the play was a fascinating piece, enthusiastically performed by all concerned.