The Captain of Köpenick
Antony Sher, Nick Malinowski & Anthony O’Donnell
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".
Yes, Carl Zuckmayer's 1931 play of the Weimar Republic is back at the National 40 years after Paul Scofield gave one of his most brilliant and scintillating Old Vic performances as the petty criminal and boot maker, Wilhelm Voigt.
Antony Sher saw that performance and now gives his own, very different, version of a beetling little man, a "cheeky chappy" who leaves a Prussian prison in 1910 without any identification papers and goes in pursuit of them, rather like Pinter's caretaker, through a series of picaresque adventures in Berlin and the nearby town of Köpenick.
Sher starts with the high-pitched, strangulated voice of the underdog, visits a dying niece (Iris Roberts), steals flowers for her grave, and encounters his destiny - an abandoned military uniform - in a fancy dress shop supervised with Dickensian flourish by David Killick.
The second half, like Gogol's The Government Inspector, shows the spuriously elevated Voigt finding a much fuller voice, commanding respect and exposing corruption as he storms the town hall with a battery of soldiers and makes off with the Mayor's ill-gotten gains.
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.
Director Adrian Noble and designer Anthony Ward throw a pretty good production at the play, with a crazy surrealist setting of a grey Berlin lit by flashes of Prussian helmets and boots, marching songs and an enjoyable array of sharp supporting performances.
These are provided notably by the lugubrious little Anthony O'Donnell as the pigeon-plump Mayor (and a lavatory cleaner), Adrian Schiller as a brutally precise tailor (and a tipsy waiter), Olivia Poulet as the Mayor's wife (and a lubricious military ball-goer) and Nick Sampson as a wonderfully serpentine Minister of the Interior with whom Voigt makes his clinching deal; the uniform then magically dances of its own accord.
The lively text is by Ron Hutchinson, using a literal translation of Simon Scardifield, the busy lighting by Neil Austin and the rest of the roles usefully populated by such stalwarts as James Hayes, Robert Demeger, Paul Bentall and Alan David.
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."