Review: The Captain of Kopenick, by Carl Zuckmayer at the National Theatre (Olivier)

captainofKopenickposterI have a peculiar fascination with record keeping. Some of it is professional, some of it is the anarchist in me. If you know how it’s supposed to work, you know all the parts that simply don’t. Life is an adventure, not a shopping list.

A small record keeping error lies at the heart of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick. Wilhelm Voigt, opportunistic small time crook in Kaiser’s Germany, doesn’t have official papers to prove he exists. Under different circumstances, he may have been pleased: his success as petty thief relies on flying under the radar. But he is a little bit tired. His personal resilience, among much running and evading, is waning. He wants to leave his mark, and that mark involves being formally recognised as a person, not as an administrative oddity. (As an interesting aside, the Christmas episode of Call the Midwife relied on impeccable public record keeping in Britain of the same period to give closure to one of its most destitute characters. In early 20th century Britain, you formally exist even if you are a baby dying of abject poverty).

This is by no means the only theme of the play: social justice, poverty, the fight of the individual against the system, police brutality, hypocrisy, the crime of looking the other way, the crime of good people following orders, all make an appearance in a hotbed of chaos and absurd comedy. The production often bounces around too quickly for any of these themes to make a real impact. The tone can also be uneven: Slapstick elements fall flat or run out of steam as there isn’t enough energy, grace or even brutality to sustain them. Some other scenes are pushed to grotesque before being pulled back.

The best scenes come when absurd comedy is undercut with pathos: the marching of a ragtag team of soldiers, too harassed to know how ridiculous they look, is undercut by Voigt seeing a ghost; the scene at the cemetery, full of existential grief; an absurd business with a password, all the more funny because it’s true; a wordless scene in the shadows between Voigt’s sister and her husband.

Voigt is a complex character, part clown, part crook, part hero. None of these elements is less sincere than the others, and Antony Sher commits fully to all of them. He beautifully balances the startled “silent film” face with introspection, but even he can’t give definition to some of the more shapeless scenes.

Another stand out is Adrian Schiller in the role of Wabschke, a tailor too close to the middle classes not to notice their hypocrisy. His face looks aghast even in his calmer moments and his fighting spirit gives the play a much needed taste of bravery. Robin Weaver as Marie, Voigt’s sister, and Barnaby Kay, as her husband, make an excellent impression as earnest good but ultimately misguided people.

The language, in this new version by Ron Hutchinson, is fluent and energetic, staying on the right side of every day speech. The set, designed by Anthony Ward, is playful with a particular knack for mocking public buildings. I especially liked Marie’s house, cut in half and shooting upwards on two levels: clearly a device so the audience can see inside, but in many ways reminiscent of bombed houses in the second world war. After all, another devastating war is around the corner.

The production, directed by Adrian Noble, has enough witty, cutting moments to sustain the interest, but it needs to find confidence and more depth in order to make a lasting impact.

Revstan gives her own take here.

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