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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  (L to R) Nick Sampson, Sandy Batchelor and Antony Sher/ Ph: Mark Douet

No expense has been spared by the National Theatre in bringing Carl Zuckmeyer’s 1931 political satire The Captain of Kopenick to the stage in a freshly minted new version by Ron Hutchinson.
The Olivier’s miraculous revolving drum has once again been put to dizzying use in telling the true story of an itinerant con man, an “oddity” who in 1906 “slipped through the cracks” of government bureaucracy, and who for a single day masqueraded as a Prussian officer after breaking into a costumier’s shop and stealing the appropriate military garb.
His name was William Voigt, a kind of everyman who, by being denied the benefit of official papers and a passport, had become a stateless person unable to find employment. No employment meant no money, which, inevitably, led to a life of petty crime, which in turn led to prison and a communal doss house redolent of Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths.
It is only in the guise of an officer that Voigt storms the local mayor’s office and, claiming that his mission is to investigate municipal corruption, makes off with the contents of the safe. For the first time in his life he has, at last, achieved the kind of recognition that had always eluded him.
It’s a jolly good story, which is a great deal more fun on the page than on the stage. At least in Adrian Noble’s rather ponderous and plodding production. The first half is particularly heavy-going as we follow the travails and mishaps of our little hero as his attempts to find an identity for himself fail miserably.
It is only in the livelier second half in which the play’s prescient message – how easily the Germans are seduced by the splendor of military garb and how in thrall they are to pompous rhetoric (Hitler’s rise to prominence was a mere two years away) – that the potential of Zuckmayer’s satire comes into focus. By then, however, one’s goodwill has been sorely tried.
The starring role of Wilhelm Voigt goes to Antony Sher, who clearly relishes taking chunk-size bites out of Anthony Ward’s expressionistic, Caligari-like set. Sher’s performance, though pickled in bravura with displays of despair and triumph, fails to move. It has no emotional centre and is ultimately hollow.
The rest of the cast grapples gamely with Hutchinson’s text – which throws in crude colloquialisms with, on one particular occasion, a sequence that could have been lifted from a Carry-On farce.
The production values – complete with a full-scale military band – is impressive enough. Pity that Noble and Hutchinson don’t value the play as much.


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