Captain of Köpenick
In a new English version by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Adrain noble
Olivier at the National Theatre until 4th April
Think Oh What a Lovely War and The Good Soldier Schweyk rolled into one. Adrian Noble’s fast-paced and evocative recreation of Prussian Berlin at the turn of the 19th century is ensemble theatre at its best, firmly in the tradition of Brecht and Joan Littlewood.
Antony Sher as Voigt gives a bravura performance that captures the tragi-comic quintessence of the part – the small, downtrodden working man who puts one over on the establishment. He brings it off with Chaplinesque panache. A superb expressionist backdrop of the metropolis and scratchy recordings of Berlin cabaret songs of the period set the scene to perfection. The choreography is planned and executed with military precision and the production makes imaginative use of pop-up sets and revolving stage to great effect. Ron Hutchinson’s new English translation captures the comi-tragic nuances of the satire eloquently.
Zuckmayer’s Hauptmann von Köpenick, was first produced in Germany in 1931 and 1953 in London. Based on a real story, the play ridicules Prussian military bureaucracy and subservience to authority.
At the turn of the century, Wilhelm Voigt, a cobbler, with a history of petty crime, is prevented from residing in Berlin, where he could find work, because he has no ID papers. Without ID papers he doesn’t exist in the eyes of the authorities and he can’t find a job or a place to live without them. After spotting a captain’s uniform for sale in a fancy-dress shop, Voigt has an audacious idea: he buys it, puts it on and commandeers a small group of soldiers, ordering them to march on the town hall. There he hopes to procure the necessary papers and so end his Catch 22 situation. Although the real sequence of events was less heroic than portrayed in the play, his exploit caused widespread hilarity throughout Germany. Although sentenced to jail, under pressure of public outrage, the Kaiser pardoned him.
The inured Prussian spirit, as lambasted in the play, led irrevocably to the First World War and made Hitler’s rise to power possible. Zuckmayer implies that an alternative was possible with a scene of a workers’ demonstration and the singing of the Internationale. That alternative found its expression in the short-lived 1918 November Revolution in Germany and the setting up of Soviets in Berlin and Munich.His play would have struck a strong chord among its German audience but it is hardly relevant for a UK audience today. Despite a superbly entertaining theatrical evening one has to ask why choose this play here and now.