Carl Zuckmayer's 1931 satire The Captain of Kopenick has been revived by former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble at the NT Olivier, where it opened to press last night (5 February 2013).
The play stars Antony Sher as Wilhelm Voight, a man released after 15 years in prison, trapped in a bureaucratic maze, wandering 1910 Berlin in desperate, hazardous pursuit of identity papers.
Almost like old times at the National: a big, bustling European comedy classic, an eye-catching star performance, a large cast, a brass band, non-stop scenery action, patriotic songs and the "Internationale".... Whereas Scofield made Voigt a dandified fantasist with an inner taste for the top job, Sher presents a comic figure closer to Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, improvising tactics and excuses with a bumbling assertiveness, driven throughout by his need for acknowledgement, recognition of his humanity... Sher stands compellingly apart, paradoxically, as a creature anxious to join them in society, even if that means rubber-stamping the rise of the Third Reich. Unsurprisingly, the play about a nonentity with dictatorial tendencies was banned by the Nazis two years after its premiere and Zuckmayer categorised as "half Jewish."
The German theatre isn’t exactly famous for its comedy and I find it hard to remember many titters in Schiller or belly laughs in Brecht... Sher gives a terrific high-definition performance, ranging from hangdog misfit with the wheedling, grating voice of a man who has taken too many knocks, to gleeful delight when the tide of events finally turns in his favour... There are some cherishable supporting performances, not least from Anthony O'Donnell who in a splendid double, plays both the pompous roly-poly mayor and a richly comic one-eyed lavatory attendant. Too often, however, the production feels overemphatic, and the humour heavy-handed. But then this is a German play.
...Adrian Noble and designer Anthony Ward pull out all the stops in this lively adaptation by Ron Hutchinson: cartoonish scenery and magical stage machinery, spectacular stunts and lighting, oompah bands and rousing soldiers’ choruses... There are some heavy Germanic jokes which go on a bit, but once Voigt gets the uniform, drops his amiable geezerish persona and impersonates a (very British) senior military officer, it is hilarious. And the moral is sharp. Voigt confesses, asking in return only a passport to affirm his identity, as only paperwork can do. The Kaiser is just thrilled by his people’s tractable reverence for a uniform. “Finally we can trust the German people to follow wherever we lead them.” Brrrr.
...Director Adrian Noble creates plenty of spectacle. The resources of the Olivier are fully used, and Anthony Ward’s design is impressive, although its complexities occasionally slow down what’s already a less than pacy show. There are moments of wit and some touches of slapstick, mainly involving the soldiers Voigt manages to coerce. But the production lacks rhythm. The first half meanders, with several scenes too earnest and drawn out. Though the musical numbers are lively, they compound the sense that we’re watching a cartoon. Some of the problems are inherent in the play. Ron Hutchinson’s take tries to dazzle yet isn’t resoundingly funny and makes Voigt less sympathetic than he should be. The characterisation feels heavy-handed. When the satire bites, it bites pretty hard, but the truly enjoyable scenes are a long time coming.
...as you sit through this swollen and heavy-handed revival by Adrian Noble in the Olivier, it's another national stereotype that sometimes unjustly springs to mind: the proverbial leadenness of the Germanic sense of humour... Antony Sher's bravura Voigt is very funny as he blossoms... But the play keeps you waiting an unconscionably long time for these high spots – a fact not disguised by Ron Hutchinson's adaptation which sometimes goes a vulgarity too far in its robust, modernising earthiness nor by Noble's elephantine production with its effortful cartoon-Expressionist sets, its woefully unspontaneous slapstick, and its over-emphasis on rousing nationalist choruses and oom-pah military bands. It's a repetitive piece, true, but here, by time we learn at the end that the Kaiser is delighted that Voigt's trick initially worked – because it shows the German people are suckers for a top-brass uniform and “will follow wherever we lead them” – the point seems to have been laboured into the ground.
This revived 1931 German satire has to set a record for time taken to get to the actual point. It’s not until way into the second half of Adrian Noble’s fitfully enjoyable production that Antony Sher’s gregarious jailbird Wilhelm Voigt finally acquires an officer’s uniform, which enables him to cause low-level anarchy in the titular Berlin suburb by masquerading as an army captain... despite some funny lines and flashes of brilliance, Ron Hutchinson's translation and Noble's production are far too indulgent of the source material. Drilled ruthlessly into shape, this could have been something really quite special... Sher puts in a hammily enjoyable performance as the wide-eyed, phlegm-voiced Voigt and Noble pleasingly doffs his cap to Monty Python in a production that boasts several moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity. But none of it really makes up for this 'Captain's lack of discipline.